When Freedom Riders were mobbed and beaten by 200 whites at a Montgomery bus station while local police stood aside, Smith was 17. The next year, in Oxford, Miss., white students and townspeople rioted, wounding 160 federal marshals and killing two bystanders rather than sec James Meredith admitted to the University of Mississippi.
As Smith began college in 1963, four black girls were killed when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed in reaction to school desegregation.
"I could read the Constitution," Smith says. "I could compare the writing of this land with its reality."
Smith, with his gift for vividness, remembered the cotton fields and began to fit himself into the black American experience. "I had the language now to really think about it," he says, "about what my father had endured from the field bosses."
Some injustice was nearer at hand. Other black San Jose State athletes had complained about discrimination in housing. "I went apartment-hunting," says Smith, "to test whether there was racism in San Jose. I'd find a nice apartment with a FOR RENT sign on the lawn. I'd get the people to come to the door. They'd say, 'No vacancies.'
"I'd get a blonde, blue-eyed girl to knock and ask if there was a room. And there was." Smith sighs. "There it was, five blocks from the gym."
In Smith's senior year, adding to the San Jose State ferment, one John Carlos appeared. A product of Harlem's P.S. 90, Frederick Douglass Junior High and Manhattan Vocational and Technical High School, Carlos had already run 9.2 in the 100 and 20.2 in the 200 at East Texas State. "I'd gone there not for the college but to get my wife, Kim, and daughter out of Harlem," he says. "I asked the recruiter if my kid could ride horses in Texas. He said, 'Yep.' I also asked about race relations. He said they were O.K. When we hit the airport, I realized my mistake.
"A black man couldn't get a beer in a bar in Austin, in the Texas state capital," Carlos continues. "I wanted to change it."
Carlos recalls that when he was interviewed by the East Texas State school paper, he described racism as he had seen it on campus. "I said how the football coaches called a black receiver who'd dropped the ball 'Nigger' or 'Nigra' or 'Boy.' The athletic department called a meeting of black athletes," he says. "We were told, 'You don't like it here, you can leave.' I said, 'I am leaving,' and I did, as quickly as I could."
Carlos returned to New York City, where he met with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Andrew Young and Harry Edwards, a former basketball player and discus thrower who taught sociology at San Jose State. They pointed out that Carlos could go to San Jose State with the help of student loans instead of an athletic scholarship. He transferred there in the spring of 1967, drawn also by the urge to beard the lions in their den. "Tommie Smith and Lee Evans were great runners," says Carlos. "I felt I was as great, so the only way to prove it was to get out there and take them on." Carlos and Smith would never be close friends.