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San Jose Statement

Smith and Carlos' 1968 protest will be immortalized in statue

June 26, 2005|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — Its home will be a grassy area, ringed by trees and near a wooden kiosk stapled with advertisements for an online poker site, sleep-deprivation counseling, English tutoring and a men's roller hockey championship.

If San Jose State's interim president, Don W. Kassing, left his office in room 206A of the ivy-covered Tower Hall and moved to a window on the other side of the 19th-century stucco building, he would be able to see it.

Students leaving the new laboratory building or the old General Classroom building will find it right in front of them, and that's probably a good thing, because they're paying for it.

Certainly, the sight lines improve when you're talking about a 23-foot tall statue, because that's what is coming here -- a statue depicting San Jose State student-athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos in their raised-fist protest against racial inequality as they stood on the medal stand after the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The gesture instantly sparked controversy -- Smith and Carlos were banned from the Olympic village -- but there are no hints of unrest here, only school pride, and a desire to honor two pioneers of social activism on the campus they walked nearly four decades ago.

There was a groundbreaking ceremony here recently to mark the spot the huge statue will occupy. A fund-raising effort by the school's Associated Students group -- a nonprofit student governing body -- has raised $225,000 of the $300,000 needed to pay for the installation.

It is expected to be completed Oct. 16, the 37th anniversary of the event that raised not only fists, but social consciousness.

"A hundred years from now, people will look at that statue and say 'What was that about?' and someone will say 'Demonstrating at the Olympics,' " said Harry Edwards, an activist, sociologist and lecturer at what was then San Jose State College. "That will just open the door to the discussion.

"The real legacy of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in this statue is that they provided a point of focus to pose their enduring questions to a free society. What is the role of protest and patriotism in challenging times? To have this statue on a college campus, it's so appropriate. These questions will be debated as long as America is a free society."

The idea to honor Smith and Carlos came from Eric Grotz, who was a political science major from Fremont. Inspired in class by a professor's lecture that some don't get recognized for their efforts, Grotz researched Smith and Carlos, then wrote a resolution to honor them to the student government three years ago.

"For a lot of people, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were a heart-felt memory," said Grotz, now 25.

That the fund-raising is a project by the students and not the university makes a lot of sense to Alfonso De Alba, executive director of Associated Students.

"What Tommie and John did then, our current students are beginning to understand that there is a way toward change," he said. "We're telling Tommie and John, 'What you've done is valued and a university setting is the most appropriate place to celebrate that.' "

Smith is retiring June 30 after 27 years at Santa Monica College. He still gets a lot of blank looks from students who know nothing about his role in the 1968 Olympics, but he thinks the statue might make more aware.

He is proud of the statue.

"I feel good about it. If it's OK with the birds, it's OK with me," he said.

"Seriously, it's been a long time, a lot of rainy track meets and a lot of memories and a lot of years ago."

*

If Edwards had been successful with his call for athletes to boycott the Olympics, the Smith-Carlos protest, the Olympics' most significant, would never have occurred.

Edwards was at the forefront of the athletic activist movement. He was a lecturer at San Jose State and believed that academics were not being stressed for African American students, especially athletes.

He organized a student protest that led to the school's canceling a football game against Texas El Paso in 1967 and later formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights, urging African American athletes to boycott the 1968 Olympics.

The boycott didn't happen, the Games went on as scheduled and everything appeared normal, at least for a while.

In those 1968 Games at Mexico City, San Jose State athletes won four gold medals and a bronze. Only 12 nations won more gold medals than San Jose State College, but no medal drew more attention than the gold Smith won in the 200 meters.

He won in world-record time, 19.83 seconds. Carlos, his Spartan track teammate, was third.

What happened next became a swirling mix of black pride, athletic protest, a plea for equality and for a new social consciousness.

Smith and Carlos took their places on the medal stand and when the national anthem was played, Smith raised his right fist, over which he wore a black glove. Carlos raised his black-gloved left fist. They both wore black socks, signifying poverty, and they lowered their heads.

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