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San Jose Students Want Statue Honoring Olympic Salute

San Jose Students Want Statue Honoring Olympic Salute

SAN JOSE, Calif.

Thirty-five years after sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists on the Olympic podium in a Black power salute, students at their alma mater want to honor their controversial gesture with a statue.

The image of two athletes raising black-gloved fists in the air as the U.S. flag was raised and “The Star-Spangled Banner” played remains an icon for those who remember 1968 — a turbulent year that included the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

But decades later, awareness of their protest has faded among many of the young students at San Jose State University.

Most students today don’t know who Smith and Carlos are, or the significance of what they did, said Erik Grotz, a San Jose State senior who only discovered that the sprinters attended his university last year. That’s why Grotz organized a campaign to commemorate the athletes’ activism.

“I couldn’t understand why the campus didn’t acknowledge their efforts as student activists,” says Grotz, who thinks such a protest could resonate with students today. “It would be an inspiration to other students. It would prove to them they can make an impact now.”

This is an opportunity for the university and the community to give the athletes the welcome they didn’t get decades ago, said Alfonso de Alba, executive director of Associated Students, the university’s student government body.

“Thirty-five years ago they were chastised and shunned by the community,” says Alba, pointing out Smith and Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics. “Years later, we want to say welcome back. This is the way it should have been.”

Smith and Carlos had been influenced by their activist friend, Harry Edwards, a fellow student-athlete at San Jose State. Edwards later became a professor at San Jose State and was a leader of the movement to boycott the Olympics to protest racism.

The boycott never happened. Smith won the gold medal in the 200 meters, breaking the world record, and Carlos took the bronze. They used their moment in the spotlight to stage a silent protest against the injustices that Blacks faced. Their act cost them dearly.

“I was vilified overnight,” says Carlos, now a track coach and counselor at Palm Springs High School. “Friends walked away, job opportunities were not there, I couldn’t pay my bills. My first wife took her life in part because of what happened.”

“What they did changed the way we look at sports and its relation to society,” says Edwards, now head of Oakland’s Parks and Recreation Department. The Associated Students have begun fund-raising efforts for the statue, and the university — which supports the commemoration — is offering its expertise to help organize such an effort.

Students will hold a reception Oct. 16, the 35th anniversary of the salute, to name the sculptor who will design the monument.

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