But Jackie Robinson, whose brother Mack had finished second to Owens in the 1936 Olympic 200 meters, had had enough. "I say, use whatever means...to get our rights here in this country," he said. "When, for 300 years, Negroes have been denied equal opportunity, some attention must be focused on it."
The U.S. Olympic track coach, Stanford's Payton Jordan, voiced disbelief. "There must be some coercion to have an individual who has worked so long and hard [to qualify for the Olympics] change his mind in the middle of the stream," he said.
On the other side, Rev. Young, then director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and later the man who would help bring the 1996 Games to Atlanta, wrote: "Dr. King applauds this new sensitivity among Negro athletes...and he feels that this should be encouraged.... Dr. King told me that "this represents a new spirit of concern on the part of successful Negroes for-those who remain impoverished.' "
In what seemed to be a reference to Owens, Young continued, "Negro athletes may be treated with adulation during their Olympic careers, but many will face later the same slights experienced by other Negroes. Dr. King knows that this is a desperate situation for the Negro athlete, the possibility of giving up a chance at a gold medal, but he feels that the cause of the Negro may demand it."
With that, the proposal was already a success. The howls of white protest were testimony to America's continuing racism. And with no less a leader than King expressing sympathy, the boycott idea was something every thoughtful black athlete had to address. A Track and Field News survey of black contenders for the U.S. Olympic team showed that one third (nine of 27) would at least consider a boycott.
This was a comfort to Smith, who was new to being reviled. "The people back home in Lemoore said, 'Oh, Tommie, you were always such a nice boy," as if I were now evil beyond hope, beyond redeeming," he says wistfully.
Smith had married pentathlete Denise Paschal in 1967. In February 1968, their son, Kevin, was born. Now, Smith's life was in a holding pattern until after the Olympics, when he planned to serve his two-year military obligation. He also had professional football prospects. "The year before, ST. Saffold had called me, yelling, 'You drafted, man."
" 'Couldn't be,' I said. 'I'm in ROTC.'
" 'No, the Rams, the Rams, man.'
"Of course, I hadn't signed then," says Smith. "I couldn't until after the Olympics. Jim Brown contacted me to be my representative. I asked him to lend me $2,000, and he sent his agent to advance it to me against my signing."