The Quiet Riot

But I can tell you that with regard to this particular economic-sanctions movement here in Miami, what came to me was that they have been boycotting us for twenty years. They say, "We need people to work." They boycott blacks. "We need vendors to supply towels and sheets and toilet paper." They boycott us. "We need lawyers, accountants, public-relations firms." They boycott us. "We're going to donate $100,000 to charity." They boycott us. "We're going to support a not-for-profit corporation with scholarships." They boycott us. "We're going to make an investment in a community, with a building or whatever." They boycotted us. The number-one industry in Dade County, a $5.7-billion-a-year industry, has boycotted an entire race of people.

Harold Teliaferro Smith was born in Overtown 43 years ago. After attending segregated schools in Miami and the South Dade suburb of Richmond Heights, he entered Florida A&M University in Tallahassee in 1964. Male students at the college were required to join the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. There was also a military deferment available for students who continued with the ROTC program beyond their first two years. Smith availed himself of the opportunity, "not because I wanted to be a soldier but because I didn't want to get my college education interrupted by having to go fight in Vietnam."

After graduating in the summer of 1968 with a degree in mathematics and physics, Smith was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After a year stateside, he went to Vietnam as an intelligence officer. "The first 30 or 45 days I never slept. And I couldn't keep anything in my stomach. Being a mathematician, I was thinking about the probability of all three of us coming back alive," Smith says, referring to his two brothers, who had returned safely from combat. "It was a very frightening experience.

"My unit was 90 percent black," Smith recalls. "I would see them go out in the day and lose ten or fifteen men, come back and have leeches all over their bodies, doing this day in and day out, knowing that when they got back to America, they were just another nigger."

Smith says he returned from Southeast Asia "sane, serious, and directed." He also came home with an idea for his professional future, and it did not involve math or science. "While in Vietnam, where I was, most of the fighters were black, and I was the only black officer. At the time, the Uniform Code of Military Justice allowed a soldier accused of a crime to pick an officer to represent him, and he didn't have to be a lawyer. A lot of the men trusted me. I did the best I could, but I felt deficient. I got some good results and I got some bad results, but the whole experience pricked my thought processes about being a lawyer."

Back in Miami, Smith says he was surprised to find that the University of Miami had begun accepting black law students. He went to UM and asked for an application for the 1970 school year, but the class was already closed. He demanded to see the dean. The dean's secretary refused. Smith sat down in the lobby and refused to leave. After two hours, associate dean Thomas A. Thomas agreed to talk with him.

"I told him I was born in a segregated hospital, I was forced to go to a segregated middle school, I was forced to go to a segregated and inferior high school, I was forced to go to a segregated college. Then when war broke out, I was an equal American and they sent me to Vietnam. I said I intended to be in law school, in the first row in the first seat, right by the door. I said, `You might as well admit me right now or call the police and put me in jail. I have a good academic record, I can think, I'm a native Miamian. I've been told no too much.'"

Thomas allowed Smith to take classes until he passed the admissions test, which he did. In a letter written at the time, Thomas described the circumstances of Smith's matriculation as "unprecedented in the history of the university."

After law school, Smith spent four years as an assistant public defender for Dade County and a few months with the county attorney's office. In 1977 he opened his own practice in a quaint, two-story house near the Miami River on the southern edge of Overtown. Today most of his work is in criminal law, and most of his clients are black. He has discontinued his legal work for the University of Miami until the boycott is over, he says, because he's worried college donors might not give as readily to the school because of the position he has taken.

Beginning in 1984, Smith became involved in local campaigns to get Miami businesses to sever relations with South Africa. As chairman of the South Florida Coalition for a Free South Africa, he and other activists led picketing campaigns that prompted Miami's largest banks to halt sales of South African gold currency. Smith also helped persuade his alma mater to divest its holdings in corporations doing business with South Africa.

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