OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Johnny Smith

Portrait of Johnny Smith

Johnny Smith is an assistant professor of history at Georgia Tech, where he has won numerous teaching awards. His research investigates the history of American sports, and he is especially interested in sports icons who have left imprints on American culture. His first book, The Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty that Changed College Basketball (2013), explores the emergence of college basketball as a national pastime and the political conflicts in college athletics during the 1960s and 1970s. Most recently, he is a coauthor, with Randy Roberts, of Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X (2016)—named one of Amazon's best history books of the year—and A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle (2018).

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

How did Cassius Clay become Muhammad Ali? Why was he the most polarizing athlete in America during the 1960s? Historian Johnny Smith will answer these questions and discuss his new book, Blood Brothers, the first in-depth portrait of the pivotal friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Professor Smith will explain the central role Malcolm X played in the life of Muhammad Ali and how the politics of the Nation of Islam broke the bond between these two icons. Blood Brothers is a tale of friendship and brotherhood, love and deep affection. It is also a story of deceit, betrayal, and violence—inside and outside the ring—during a troubled time in America.
For more than a decade, the UCLA dynasty defined college basketball. In twelve seasons from 1964 to 1975, John Wooden's teams won ten national titles, including seven consecutive championships. The Bruins made history by breaking numerous records, but they also rose to prominence during a turbulent age of political unrest and youthful liberation. At the height of his career, Wooden coached a new generation of athletes who spoke out against racism, poverty, and the Vietnam War. Challenging the political boundaries of of the sport, the most prominent players of the era, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, and Bill Walton, shaped the revolt of the college athlete. While college youth rebelled against authority, Wooden emerged as a cultural icon, a symbol of moral leadership during America's moral crisis. This is the story of America's culture wars played out on the basketball court by some of college basketball's most famous players and its most memorable coach.
Mickey Mantle's biographers have woven a mythology that he played during a more innocent time, "when everyday life was much less complicated." Yet romanticizing Mantle’s place in the “Golden Age” of baseball and the “happy days” of the fifties distorts the reality of his times and reduces his importance at a crucial moment in history. Only when we ask how the Cold War and the culture of New York influenced his place in America can we begin to understand why baseball needed a hero like him. In the making of Mickey Mantle context was as important as his talent. How did Mickey Mantle become an icon? Why did it happen in 1956? And what did he mean to America? In this lecture I will explain how his emergence as a hero—a symbol of the American Way—was a product of a particular moment when the country confronted the Cold War and baseball faced an array of problems.
The Revolt of the Black Athlete and the 1968 Olympics." In this lecture, Smith explains the roots of the "revolt of the black athlete" during the 1960s. Tracing the origins of black athletic protest through the careers of Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, UCLA All-American Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Smith examines the relationship between iconic black athletes and the radicalization of American politics.
In this lecture, Smith explores the significance of Jackie Robinson as a cultural symbol and the political implications of his career and civil rights activism.