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Statue Plan Recalls '68 Olympic Tumult

A San Jose State graduate is leading an effort to honor the two black athletes who raised their fists by erecting a memorial at their alma mater.

August 10, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

The pair of Olympic sprinters stood on the victory stand in Mexico City. As the U.S. national anthem played, each bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist in protest of racial inequality in America.

Gold medalist Tommie Smith cradled a boxed olive branch as an emblem of peace. John Carlos, third in the same 200-meter dash, wore love beads with his bronze medal. Their shoeless feet, clad in black socks, represented poverty among African Americans. The year was 1968. The men were condemned as traitors and banned from the Games forever.

The image of their black power salute helped define an era. But 35 years later, few remember the path that took Smith and Carlos to Mexico City.

That path cut cleanly through their alma mater, San Jose State University, where a public reassessment may be underway. A young white student has vowed to honor the controversial act by bringing a sculpture of Smith and Carlos to campus.

San Jose State was once known as Speed City, for the Olympic track and field stars it spawned. The black athletes' protest movement flourished here too in the months leading up to Smith and Carlos' notorious stand. It was a year of tumult for the Civil Rights movement: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, rising protests against the Vietnam War.

But here at San Jose State, the footprints to the past have long faded. The university dropped its intercollegiate track and field team 15 years ago. And the names of Smith and Carlos draw mostly blank stares on the campus of 31,000 students.

Against this backdrop, 23-year-old Erik Grotz decided it was time to act.

"I see it as a part of living history," said Grotz, who graduated three months ago with a degree in political science and devised the plan for the sculpture depicting the black power salute.

"We're celebrating that San Jose State students can become leaders on the world stage -- that we can make a difference at a really young age."

After the Olympics, Smith and Carlos both struggled for years with poverty, ostracism and depression before hitting new strides -- Smith as head track coach at Santa Monica College, Carlos as a counselor and, for a time, a coach at Palm Springs High School. For them, the tribute from a young activist is a moving welcome home.

"It took a lot of courage on his part, being a young white individual, to step up to the plate and say, 'These people have been wronged and we need to give them the honor and respect they deserve at our institution,' " said Carlos, now 58.

The Associated Students -- the nonprofit student governing body implementing the project -- and university administrators have already received some critical responses -- all from outside the campus. In a time of high patriotic sentiment, the endorsement of a challenge to the flag is bound to inspire antipathy.

"They essentially 'spit in the face' of ALL Americans," read one e-mail that derided the student effort. "If the USA were as racist as you imbeciles claim, you would never have seen these fellows compete."

University officials responded to the criticism last spring with a statement from then-President Robert L. Caret. The San Jose State athletes "expressed their views in a peaceful manner" -- a cherished freedom at the campus -- and opponents are entitled to the same right of self-expression, Caret said.Still, both Carlos and Smith have warned Grotz to brace for more.

"I told him ... that the easy part is over," Carlos said. "You see whether you're a true soldier when they start firing at you."

By the late 1960s, San Jose State University had attracted a crop of world-class black athletes on sports scholarships. But Harry Edwards, a longtime sociology professor at UC Berkeley, said recently that academics were not emphasized for African American students. Edwards, who just stepped down as director of Oakland's Office of Parks and Recreation, petitioned his way into more rigorous classes. He formed the university's first black student organization, then left to pursue a higher degree.

After returning as a lecturer, Edwards led a black student protest in 1967 that forced cancellation of the school's opening football game. Then he formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights, urging black athletes to boycott the 1968 Games. It was in that cauldron of activism that Smith, the son of a Texas farmhand who had moved his family to the Central Valley's Lemoore, spent five years. He embraced Edwards' project.

Meanwhile, the Harlem-born Carlos enrolled at East Texas State University, only to be shocked by the segregation. "I looked up and saw: black bathroom/white bathroom, black water fountain/white water fountain," Carlos said. "Then right away the coach started calling me 'Boy.' "

After Carlos went on record in support of an Olympic boycott, white neighbors forbade their kids from playing with his daughter. He returned to New York, where he met King and Edwards, who lured him to San Jose.

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