TOMMIE SMITH, JOHN CARLOS, PETER NORMAN: Clenched Fist becomes a Salute

:cool: October 19, 2005

America finally honours rebels as clenched fist becomes salute
BY OWEN SLOT,,4-1832384,00.html

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were hailed as heroes this week but it was not so 37 years ago

THEY unveiled the statue, accompanied by a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, as the dying evening sunlight stretched across a picturesque stretch of lawn guarded by grand old trees. And this time, when they heard the anthem, Tommie Smith and John Carlos held their heads high.
It was 37 years and a day previously that they had given the world the iconic image of the black power salute at the Mexico Olympic Games, their heads bowed, a metaphor for their refusal to accept that theirs was the land of the free. On Monday night, however, they looked up, blinking with pride and disbelief at their magnificent likenesses towering 22ft above them, beautiful replicas in bronze, holding the same pose for which their names have become synonymous.
Some might suggest that theirs was a journey now complete, but both men reject the idea dismissively. Even so, these two rebels of the civil rights movement were being welcomed as deeply into the establishment as they could ever hope to be. On the medal podium in 1968, after Smith and Carlos won gold and bronze respectively in the Olympic 200 metres, their raised, gloved fists representing black strength and unity formed a statement of such power and eloquence that the repercussions would shape their lives.
They were thrown out of the Olympics — that was the harmless part — they were vilified back home, treated like dogs rather than heroes, their children were ridiculed at school, neither’s marriage survived. Carlos says that his wife committed suicide because the life of an outcast was so insufferable.
At that time, San José State, their university, just about allowed them to crawl back in to class. On Monday, after 37 years of silence, the same college finally embraced their stance, finally fêted their conviction; it is now raising money for a “Legacy Campaign” to take the message farther. The occasion had style, too. Peter Norman, the silver medal- winner, was flown in from Australia and Lee Evans, the 400 metres gold medal-winner from those Games and another San José State alumnus who was integral to the black athletes’ civil rights movement, was also invited.
They were all bathed deep in glory, too, and as emotions rose, they renewed their vows, to courage, freedom, to the battle against prejudice. And although they may no longer be on the outside, their journey is not complete. “We’re celebrated as heroes by some,” Smith said, “but we’re still fighting for equality.”
This was only the third occasion that the three medal- winners had been together since 1968, but the depth of the bond of which they spoke was clear to see. Norman is absent from the new statue — his place on the podium is empty, encouraging others to step up in his place and take the stand — but public statement of sympathy for their cause, which he made by wearing their civil rights badge, has tied him to them inextricably.
Norman had never been to San José, California, before the weekend. All he had known about it as a young man was “this little dot on the map I used to read about. Speed City, they called it, because everything that came out of San José was so fast.”
He had heard, before the Olympics, that the men he would run against had come close to boycotting the Games. And he was aware of the mood of unrest in the United States, of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy and the bloodbath that followed the student riots in Mexico City.
He had no idea, though, of the pressure that Smith and Carlos had placed themselves under: to win medals so they could take a public stand for their beliefs, while white America leant on them to be smiling ambassadors. Written death threats were commonplace; Evans received about 80, a telegram on the eve of his final informing him of the exact time (2.30pm) of his pending assassination. “I didn’t understand why we were so hated,” he said. “The Ku Klux Klan, the White Angels, the John Birch Society (another white racist organisation) — I had people I hadn’t even heard of wanting to kill me. I was afraid of being shot the whole time.”
Back in San José, Smith returned to his job, washing cars in a Pontiac garage, which he needed to do to sustain his young family and his studies. The garage owner advertised him in a banner — “Come and see Smith, our gold medallist” — and when the advertisement worked, Smith would be asked out from the back, would take off his overalls to reveal shirt and tie underneath and go to the forecourt to shake hands with enthusiastic punters.

“I was soon fired,” Smith said, “because the boss said that if I didn’t change my attitude to this great America, you’re out of here. I came in the next day and said, ‘My attitude hasn’t changed.’
“I was a hero to some when I went out to Mexico the world record-holder,” Carlos said. “I came back ‘John Carlos the neighbourhood bum’. I would soon have no money and I had to beg, borrow, steal and gamble to pay my rent.
“I remember chopping the furniture up for firewood and my wife looking at me as if I was crazy. But our heating was electric and I couldn’t pay my electricity bill, so we had to take the kids to sleep by the fireplace. We had a lot to deal with. My wife took her life because of it — she couldn’t take it any more.”
Smith said: “The ridicule was great, but it went deeper than us personally. It went to our kids, our citizen brothers and our parents. My mother died of a heart attack in 1970 as a result of pressure delivered to her from farmers who sent her manure and dead rats in the mail because of me. My brothers in high school were kicked off the football team, my brother in Oregon had his scholarship taken away. It was a fault that could have been avoided had I turned my back on the atrocities.”
So do they regret their actions? “It was a time when everyone needed to step up to the plate,” Smith said. “We were being asked, ‘What do you believe?’ I knew what I had to do. I knew there would be pressures, I couldn’t think about the repercussions.”
Carlos said: “My family had to endure so much. They finally figured out they could pierce my armour by breaking up my family and they did that. But you cannot regret what you knew, to the very core of your person, was right.”
So the sense of pathos was deep as they were hailed here as heroes. They spent much of Monday with their arms round each other’s shoulders, and Norman’s, too. “It’s an honour to call these men my friends,” Norman said. “People don’t often stop to think what would have happened if they had gone through with the boycott. I can tell you one thing: I’d have been a gold medallist. And another: the opportunity for two young men to stand there and tell the whole world the truth would never have occurred.”
Because of what happened in Mexico City, Smith had his first job offer in the NFL withdrawn, but he went on to play for the Cincinnati Bengals before turning to a career in education and coaching. In 1977, when Carlos’s life had finally settled, he set up a youth development programme in Los Angeles and he continues to work in education. Now in their sixties, they remain the same characters that shocked the world 37 years ago. Smith is still the leader, zealous and fiercely intelligent, Carlos remains a spirit that no one can quell. As the huge, black drape was lifted from their statues, Carlos whooped and cheered; Smith simply froze, silent in wonderment.
“I’ll probably come down again with my wife to have a proper chance to look,” Carlos said, “away from all this excitement.” And he and Smith may visit together again, too — no longer the villains, now the absolute heroes of San José.
IT MAY be 37 years old but the message of the Mexico City salute is still relevant, particularly with the 2008 Olympics going to Beijing in China, a country with human rights issues — this is the view of Peter Norman, the Australia silver medal-winner who split Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympic 200 metres final.
“There is often a misunderstanding of what the raised fists signified,” Norman said. “It was about the civil rights movement, equality for man.
“The issues are still there today and they’ll be there in Beijing and we’ve got to make sure that we don’t lose sight of that. We’ve got to make sure that there is a statement made in Beijing, too. It’s not our part to be at the forefront of that, we’re not the leaders of today, but there are leaders out there with the same thoughts and the same strength.”
ONE absentee from the day of tribute to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at San Jose State College on Monday was George Foreman, who won the heavyweight boxing gold in the 1968 Olympic Games but was vilified by many activists at the time for being a flag-waving supporter of the US.
Smith and Carlos were not the only Olympians to make a statement in Mexico City. Some wore black socks, many wore their civil rights badges, including the all-white rowing eight from Harvard University. Lee Evans, Lawrence James and Ronald Freeman, who pulled off a one-two-three in the 400 metres, stood in the stadium wearing black berets, the uniform of the Black Panther movement. Carlos, who is in touch with Foreman, said: “He only waved the flag about in Mexico City because he didn’t know anything else.”

Honoring activism

By Becky Bartindale

Mercury News
Individuals take a stand. Sometimes things change.
For San Jose State Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the immediate changes that flowed from their black-gloved power salutes on the victory stand in Mexico City were personal and daunting.
Their silent 1968 protest against racial inequality got them banned from the Olympic Village, ordered to leave the Games. When they arrived home in San Jose, they lost housing, jobs and opportunities. The athletic excellence that brought Smith the gold and Carlos the bronze medals in the 200-meter race carried no weight with those who thought they’d disgraced their country.
Monday, those days of confusion and pain seemed like distant recollections as San Jose State University unveiled a sculpture of Smith and Carlos and cheered the Southern California educators’ return to campus. Standing more than 20 feet tall, the sculpture captures them in that defining moment, arms in the air and heads bowed as the national anthem played, gloved fists representing black power, shoeless feet symbolizing black poverty, a black scarf speaking to black pride.
A large and admiring crowd turned out for the ceremony Monday to pay tribute to Smith and Carlos as athletes and activists. Besides taking a stand for civil rights, they were among the athletes who earned San Jose State the name Speed City,'' home to the fastest guys around. These two guys gave away that glory in 1968,’’ said Peter Norman, the Australian who won the silver medal and stood in solidarity with the two runners on the medal stand that day and who attended Monday’s ceremony along with Smith and Carlos. San Jose State, you are giving them back that glory today.'' Despite threats on their lives, Smith and Carlos survived to see their moment in history honored. Carlos reflected on that during a panel discussion Monday, remembering he and Smith as young idealists. We felt a lot of things could be done better, that wrongs could be corrected,’’ Carlos said. We knew we had to be the best we could be to have that opportunity.'' The $300,000 artwork was sponsored by the Associated Students of the university, and many of the speakers Monday encouraged today's students to follow the lead of Carlos and Smith. The sculpture, by Bay Area artist Rigo 23, leaves Norman's place on victory stand vacant so viewers can stand with Smith and Carlos in their protest for human rights. Will Smith and Carlos only be stone-faced amidst a beautiful plaza?’’ speaker Professor Ethel Pitts-Walker asked the crowd. For them to become immortalized, the living must take up their activism and continue their work.'' For decades, the university did nothing to recognize Smith and Carlos, and few students knew the athletes had any connection to their school. Then a student, Erik Grotz, heard a story from his political science professor, Cobie Kwasi Harris, about two young men from San Jose State whose political activism was not celebrated until years after it took place. Grotz, the professor said, was skeptical, and thought Harris was exaggerating. So Grotz embarked on his own research project. He learned the incredible tale was true, and what he found inspired him to help establish the Tommie Smith and John Carlos Commemoration Project. That effort led to a student recognition of the athletes on the 35th anniversary of the protest, the university awarding them honorary doctorates this year and now the sculpture, financed partly by the Associated Students organization. It never would have happened without the students,’’ said Harris, the professor, recalling how Smith and Carlos had been invisible on campus for the past 30 years.
Also honored Monday was Lee Evans, a two-time Olympic gold-medal winner and San Jose State alumnus who almost decided not to run the 400-meter race in 1968 because of the sanctions against Smith and Carlos.
Had athletes such as Evans, Smith and Carlos decided to boycott the Games, history probably would not remember them today, Norman said at a panel discussion.
The opportunity for two young men to stand there and make a statement to the world would never have occurred,'' he said, and the world would have never been set back on its heels.’’

SJSU statue is a fitting tribute

Mercury News Editorial
Thirty-seven years ago this week, two student athletes from San Jose State each raised a gloved fist in the air on the medal stand in the 1968 Olympics. Their expression of political dissent instantly captured the turmoil of a tumultuous era. On Monday, with John Carlos and Tommie Smith in attendance, their alma mater dedicated a sculpture immortalizing their action.
The idea for the statue came from a San Jose State student, Erik Grotz. Students, through their non-profit governing body, raised most of the $300,000 cost. It is a worthy tribute to their parents’ generation of activists who forced the nation – and the campus – to confront issues of poverty and race.
With its likenesses of Smith, the gold medalist, and Carlos, the winner of the bronze, the statue will serve as a history lesson and as a catalyst for debate on the role of protest at a university.
Smith and Carlos suffered harshly for their convictions. For violating the Olympic ban on expressing political speech during a medal ceremony, the two were summarily banished from the Olympics. They were vilified in the mainstream press as traitors. They sacrificed potential commercial endorsements. But they have said consistently that they made the right decision then and have no regrets now.
Their gesture was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, they said. It grew out of a movement, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, that their mentor at San Jose State, sociology professor Harry Edwards, organized. A principal goal was to get the Olympics to ban athletes from nations with apartheid.
Most Americans saw only a militant black-power salute, when their message was more universal. Their shoeless feet represented poverty. Smith, the son of a migrant farmhand from Texas, carried an olive branch, a symbol of peace, under one arm. Carlos, who grew up poor in Harlem, wore black beads, a reminder of lynchings.
Death threats followed their return to San Jose. One person who didn’t turn against them was San Jose State President Robert Donald Clark. Clark who died in June at age 95, had taken Edwards’ charge of discrimination against black athletes seriously. He ordered the athletic department to treat all students equally and put fraternities and sororities on probation until they followed new anti-discrimination policies.
At the '68 Olympics, San Jose State athletes won four gold medals and a bronze – more than most nations. San Jose became known as Speed City. Even better, it became known as the home of great athletes with a vision that extended beyond the track.
Before Monday’s unveiling and all-day tributes, many students on today’s racially and ethnically diverse campus may have known little about Smith and Carlos, but they are beneficiaries of their struggle. The statue stands as a reminder that dissent can create change, but that acting on principles can require great courage.