A Moment In Time

Feb. 24, 2006

By Art Spander

Special to CSTV.com from The Sports Xchange


·          CSTV's Black History Month presented by NAVY

Peaceful, so peaceful, the lawn of the San Jose State University campus, sun shining, sky blue. So peaceful the gathering, people with gray hair and gray beards and memories of times that in contrast to this afternoon in the spring of 2005 were vicious and angry.


"They were worse than that," Harry Edwards remembered of a period long ago when politicians were gunned down and black athletes were threatened for their beliefs, "We were lucky to get out alive."


The luck was now with those who watched the unveiling of a statue to two men who, in the summer of 1968, threw the sporting world into chaos. Two men who, on an Olympics medal platform, raised gloved fists and, depending on one's viewpoint, raised either a lot of hell or a great many hopes.


Without Harry Edwards, now in his 60s, retired as a sociology professor at Cal Berkeley, still used as an advisor to the San Francisco 49ers, there would have been no plan to disrupt the Olympic Games or to take a stand when taking the medal stand.


Without Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith and John Carlos would not have become the seminal figures of what was called the Revolt of the Black Athlete.


The Mexico City Olympics were the games of thin air and heavy disenchantment. As Bob Dylan sang, the times they were a-changin'. The lassitude of the 1950s United States had been jolted by a country searching for its soul as some searched for civil rights and others declared civil wrongs.


Trouble was no more than an incident away.


Uneasiness lingered even as cheers erupted. Bob Beamon would set a world long jump record, with some of the credit awarded to Mexico City's 7,200 ft altitude. Jim Ryun would fail again in the 1,500 meters.


The question was, what next? The answer, as Harry Edwards pointed out, was "the signature event of the movement".


It took place after the 200 meters. Smith, son of a farm worker from Lemoore in California's central valley, won, while Carlos, who grew up in New York's Harlem, came in third. Then, when the medal program was underway, the stars and stripes going up the flagpole, the Star Spangled Banner being  played on the loudspeaker system, the two American sprinters each fired a black-gloved hand toward the night sky.


They were despised. They were respected. Now, they merely are remembered.


"Tommy Smith and John Carlos are role models for our students," said Don Kassing, president of San Jose State, from which Smith, 62, graduated, and which Carlos, 61, attended.


"I knew the sun would shine," said Carlos on the day the statue was dedicated, "I'm a survivor."


Thirty-eight years ago, 1968, and kids were sticking flower stems into the gun barrels of National Guardsmen in Berkeley and Madison. We were a year beyond the Summer of Love. We were trapped in a year of upheaval.


In Vietnam, it was the Tet offensive. In Czechoslovakia, it was the Prague Spring, an uprising against the Communists. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in June. Ten days before the Olympics were to begin, Mexican security forces massacred students occupying the national university.


What happened after the 200 meters, after Smith set a world record, shouldn't have been a surprise. Edwards had organized the Olympic Project on Human Rights. In 1967, talk began of a boycott of the '68 Games, and at San Jose State there was a revolt of black student athletes, who claimed that they were victims of racial injustice.


"I didn't do what I did as an athlete," Carlos would explain. "I raised my voice in protest as a man."


In July 1968, Sports Illustrated headlined, "The Black Athlete - A Shameful Story." Two months later, previewing the games, SI wrote about "The Problem Olympics."


They were just that, with the altitude, riots and the response by Smith and Carlos when the opening bars of the America's national anthem were played.


"Such a daring stance," said Dr. Ethel Pitts, from San Jose State's theater and film department. She is a black woman who spoke of the situation with notable pride.


"Such an outrageous stance", said Avery Brundage, the late head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who, after the incident, ordered Smith and Carlos stripped of their medals and sent home.


"They violated one of the basic principals of the Olympic Games," argued Brundage. "That politics play no part whatsoever in them."


The Los Angeles Times accused Smith and Carlos of a "Nazi-like salute." Time Magazine showed the five-ring Olympic logo but with the words, "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier," instead of "Faster, Higher, Stronger".


The view is different now, so very different.


"History is funny," said Edwards. "It's one of the few realities in life that is clarified and comes into greater detail and perspective with distance. Everything else you see more, the closer you get to it.


"You go back and just look at the rhetoric and the kind of stuff that had to be part of an era in a world to get people's attention in a world where the definition was 'Blacks have made it in sport, now if the rest of society could just be like sport.' Well, we knew that wasn't the situation."


Smith said he didn't know until he walked into the tunnel toward the track what he and Carlos would do to protest. He grabbed gloves and beads, symbolic of Southern blacks being lynched. The two took off their shoes to reflect the poverty of blacks. The second-place finisher in the race, Peter Norman of Australia, a white man, stuck an Olympic Project patch on his warmup suit to show unity.


"Standing there, their hands raised," said Edwards, "is one of the most enduring images in sport."


Now, that image is depicted by a fiberglass statue covered with ceramic tiles.


"Phenomenal," said Harry Edwards.


Those who were around in 1968 could only agree.





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