Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s “Victory Stand”

    The gun goes off and the men sprint the 200-meter race [12] as fast as they can. The race lasts half a minute at most and the Americans take gold (Tommie Smith) and bronze (John Carlos)! While this race is historic in terms of athletic records (Tommie Smith was the first man to run the 200-meter race sub-20 seconds), the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City is remembered instead for the political statement made by these two black American college students during the medal ceremony. During the ceremony, Smith and Carlos both wear a black glove and black socks on the podium. The black socks are a statement concerning black poverty, which Smith and Carlos have viewed in America, and the black gloves are placed on their hands, which are clenched in a fist and held high over their heads. This clenched fist is associated with the black power movement of the 1960s. [9]

Tommie Smith finishes 1st in the Men’s 200m Final at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games [5]
    This moment in 1968 is iconic as the raising of the fist was an overtly political message that was sent around the world due to the platform Smith and Carlos were given. In an interview during the 2012 Olympics, Smith recounts his “Victory Stand” and why he did it, saying,

I have a responsibility. I was on a mission. It was a Tommie Smith mission to bring forth the need for America to change. To change its policies, in terms of equality, to change its policies in terms of equal rights, and the right of all people in a country which the constitution has promised to protect.” [4]

    Thus, Smith emphasizes that his “Victory Stand” came about as a way to support the civil rights movement. He details the moment on the podium, stating that the first thing he thought to do while hearing his national anthem was to pray and at the same time Smith raised his fist in the air “because the national anthem was played, it represents the tie I had with a country that needed to understand that human rights is an issue.” [4]

Tommie Smith stands finished in first and John Carlos finished in third. Both Americans hold their fists up in a political gesture. [2]
    This political statement by Smith and Carlos has developed into many different memory sites, particularly at San Jose State University, which is where Smith and Carlos attended school. As a result, a statue has been built and dedicated on SJSU’s campus in their honor and The Tommie Smith John Carlos Project has been created. The statue was built after a 2-year campaign run by SJSU students, who believed that Smith and Carlos were student activists that the university should proudly embrace. Many students found it unfathomable that the school hadn’t already honored these students. And one student went so far as to say, “They were not given their due respect. It is so significant for the movement of civil rights, so significant that two black men without saying a word were able to say so much. Thirty-five years later San Jose State should be able to recognize them.” [1]

    In October 2005, after campaigning and raising a majority of the $300,000 for the statue, the statue was unveiled on SJSU campus. [8] The statue is a way that Smith and Carlos’s political statement can finally be remembered. The dedication of this statue was major news, as there were many articles concerning it published in newspapers all across the country. Interestingly, the news made the front cover for SJSU’s own campus news called “Spartan Daily.” [6]

SJSU newspaper on day statue was unveiled.

    This statue not only represents a need to commemorate the political statement made in 1968 by Smith and Carlos, but also it is a means for reparation.

SJSU statue remembering alumni, Smith and Carlos and their activism. [11]
The university is in some ways building this statue as a way to make up for how Smith and Carlos were treated after the 1968 Olympic games. The statue is located outside of the university library so as to attract as many viewers as possible, and it is larger than life, standing at almost 20 feet tall. [10]

    Another way that Smith and Carlos have been remembered is through the Tommie Smith and John Carlos Project [3]. The Associated Students of San Jose State University created this project in 2002 as a way to celebrate and commemorate “the courageous acts of our student advocates in the 1968 Olympic games.” [3]

    Overall, Smith’s account of the 1968 games was inspiring and showed how big an impact college students can have when they stand for what they believe in. Smith and Carlos’s Victory Stand is an iconic memory of the 1960s and of the Civil Rights Movement and it has had an impact on different forms of activism today. This activism can be student-led, like at Smith and Carlos’s alma mater, SJSU, or led by professional athletes like Colin Kapernick, a football player who took a knee during the national anthem to fight for social justice. Kapernick talked about how Smith and Carlos had influenced him, stating, “I have admired & emulated them, raising my hand as both a symbol of celebrating my Blackness & acknowledging our connected struggles. Hearing them tell their stories, all I could do was listen & soak in the elders wisdom.” [7]

    Thus in many ways Smith and Carlos have become a rallying point in American Memory for activism and social justice. While Smith’s memory of 1968 was detailed, in some ways this memory is distorted. Smith’s memory and stories about Smith and Carlos’s experience have become narrativised over the years to make the story more dramatic. For example: over time the story has become that Smith and Carlos were ostracized when they returned from the Olympics, but in reality, they were welcomed back to SJSU and there was a rally held in their support. This narrativization developed because the memory was usable for an agenda, the Civil Rights Movement.

    Smith and Carlos have had a lasting impact on American memory and have become an inspiration for student activism at SJSU and political activism of those with a platform.

 

Sources

[1] Almond, Elliott. “ SJSU STUDENTS HONOR A HISTORIC STAND – STATUE WOULD COMMEMORATE SPARTANS SPRINTERS’ OLYMPIC PROTEST.” Mercury News, 15 May 2003, p. 1A. Americ’s News, infoweb.newsbank.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/resources/doc/nb/news/0FB128DE9E7DDEBE?p=NewsBank.

[2] “American Sprinters Tommie Smith (Center) and John Carlos (Right).” Pinterest, Pinterest, www.pinterest.com/pin/135600638759745709.

[3] Associated Students San Jose University. “Commemorating A Legacy.” Commemorating a Legacy, Associated Students San Jose University, 11 Dec. 2002, as.sjsu.edu/legacy/.

[4] Haddow, Joshua. “We Interviewed Tommie Smith About the 1968 ‘Black Power’ Salute.” Vice, 10 Aug. 2012, www.vice.com/en_us/article/ex5mz7/the-story-behind-the-1968-salute.

[5] Martin, Jill. “Tommie Smith Reflects on Winning Gold, Iconic Salute Nearly 50 Years Later.” CNN, Cable News Network, 19 Aug. 2016, edition.cnn.com/2016/08/18/sport/tommie-smith-1968-olympic-games-reflection/index.html.

[6] San Jose State University, School of Journalism and Mass Communications, “Spartan Daily, October 18, 2005” (2005). Spartan Daily (School of Journalism and Mass Communications). Paper 9173.
http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/spartandaily/9173/

[7]Scott, Sydney. “Colin Kaepernick Shares Memorable Moment With Iconic Olympians Tommie Smith And John Carlos.” Essence.com, 18 Nov. 2017, www.essence.com/celebrity/colin-kaepernick-tommie-smith-john-carlos.

[8] “SJSU STATUE IS A FITTING TRIBUTE – MEDALISTS SHOWED POWER OF COURAGE.” Mercury News [San Jose], Morning Final ed., 18 Oct. 2005. America’s News, infoweb.newsbank.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/resources/doc/nb/news/10D5829BAB8C8B58?p=NewsBankp. 16A.

[9] Smith, Jessie Carney. “Carlos, John Wesley (1945–) and Tommie, Smith (1944–).” Freedom Facts and Firsts: 400 Years of the African American Civil Rights Experience, Jessica Carney Smith, and Linda T. Wynn, Visible Ink Press, 1st edition, 2009. Credo Reference, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/vipfff/carlos_john_wesley_1945_and_tommie_smith_1944/0. Accessed 16 Apr. 2018.

[10] Smith, Maureen Margaret. “Frozen Fists in Speed City: The Statue as Twenty-First- Century Reparations.” Journal of Sport History, vol. 36, no. 3, 209AD, pp. 393–414., library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH2009/JSH3603/jsh3603j.pdf.

[11] “Tommie Smith and John Carlos – San Jose, CA Image.” Waymarking, Groundspeak, San Jose, www.waymarking.com/gallery/image.aspx?f=1&guid=15610dba-9ca8-41ed-9d4e-1f1479b1f728.

[12] “1968 Olympic 200m Final.” YouTube, YouTube, 9 Nov. 2006, www.youtube.com/watch?v=–lzACn0aZ8&feature=youtu.be.