SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) — Students at San Jose State University on Wednesday had the chance to meet a pair of icons who secured a major spot in civil rights history by spurring their own movement 50 years ago.
SJSU students are used to walking past the statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics as they protested with their fists in the air to protest social injustice, and they finally got to meet the two in person.
Carlos admitted that during the protest, they were afraid of being shot down right then and there.
“I said to Tommie, if they’re going to shoot, they’re going to shoot in that void. Listen for the gun,” he said.
There was no gun, but there was hate, expulsion from the Olympics and death threats that lasted for years.
But on Wednesday, they were celebrated by their alma mater for bringing the world’s attention to the cause of equality for African Americans.
“John Carlos and Tommie Smith had two of the top positions in the world. We were the fastest humans in the world. I felt because of that platform, I was responsible,” said Smith.
“We wanted to be something that would be profound yet still non-violent that would radiate throughout society. I think that 50 years later, we hit the nail on the head.”
Both men were attracted to San Jose State’s world class track team in the 1960’s. They became advocates for social change after studying under Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociology professor and former Black Panther.
Edwards originally advocated for black athletes to boycott the Olympics. He drew parallels between the Smith and Carlos’s protest and Colin Kaepernick’s protest.
“What it tells me is that there is still interest in that struggle to form that more perfect union,” said Edwards. “Nobody would notice Tommie Smith out in the cotton fields where I was raised.”
As both men sat literally in the shadow of their own achievement, Smith said that they wouldn’t change history, despite the hardships the protest caused the two men, like making it hard for them to find jobs or support their families.
“If I could take it back and go back, there would be no other way it could be done,” said Smith.
The legacy of what happened at San Jose State 50 years ago will continue with the newly formed Institute for the Study of Sports, Society and Social Change.
In 2019, a minor will be offered to students to study sports activism.