Black History Month: Tommie Smith

Tommie Smith was born on Jun. 6, 1944, as one of 12 children from Clarksville Texas. Despite suffering from pneumonia, he was an amazing athlete. In high school, he set nearly every track record along with winning MVP in basketball, football and track.

Throughout college at San Jose St., he set the world record of 19.5 seconds in the 200-meter sprint, which later on would become his forte. Throughout college, he had other achievements such as winning the NCAA Outdoor Men’s Track and Field Championship, national collegiate 220-yard title and set the straightaway 220-yard record before making the 1968 Olympic team and traveling to Japan to win a gold medal.

Smith was one of the only African Americans to compete in the 200m sprint during the Olympics, where he managed to place first whilst setting a record with a time of 19.83 seconds; making him the first to ever break the 20-second barrier in Olympic history. His USA teammate, John Carlos placed third in the same event and agreed with Smith to represent the African American community during the medal ceremony. They did this by raising their fists on the podium while wearing black gloves, black socks and no shoes to represent African American poverty throughout the United States. 

After this action, both Smith and Carlos were suspended from representing the United States Athletic Teams as well as banned from the Olympic Village. When they refused, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) threatened to ban the entire US track team, therefore leading to the expulsion of the two for life. Their actions were deemed as a “deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”

After the expulsion of competing in the Olympic games, both Smith and Carlos went on to be drafted into the American Football League (AFL) and spent the rest of their careers there before retiring. These two figures were some of the biggest leaders for the fight against racism in America and are still looked up to as of today.