Tommie Smith, John Carlos share stories at SJSU 50 years after Olympic protest

This week, San Jose State University celebrates an inflection point in sport. 50 years ago, Mexico City Olympic sprinters and SJSU alum Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a gloved fist in defiance to draw attention to the plight of minority and economically disenfranchised people around the globe. 

That struggle hasn’t ended, but social titans from times gone by took the stage in the San Jose State Event Center to tell their stories of courage again.

“I felt like, they had threatened our lives prior to us going to Mexico,” said former SJSU student and Olympian John Carlos.

It was 1968 and the victor’s platform a demonstration that changed the arc of social protest globally. The two raised a gloved fist for the cause of social justice. Now, it’s a symbol of struggles all over the globe.

“We had to sacrifice to prove a point and we were vilified because we had to do this,” said Tommie Smith from the stage inside the event center. Added ’68 Olympic rowing team member Paul Hoffman, “These guys made a conscious decision to take an action.”

Decades later, a town hall style debate entitled “Words To Action,” examines the impact athlete activism continues to have on the country. Olympians turned civil rights activists say 1968 was a politically and socially turbulent time, that pulled reluctant heroes and heroines into the spotlight.

“We don’t talk that much about women, and the struggles they have had. Especially during that time, when nobody was there for us to say, ‘What you’re doing is okay,’” said Wyomia Tyrus, who won gold as a member of the track and field team at the ’68 Olympic games.

SJSU sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards has been on the forefront of studying the impact sport and athlete activism have on society.

“It was these individuals who had the caliber of courage, the content of character, the stoke of consciousness, and the depth of commitment to stand and declare to the world, that we the people are better and we demand that our society and our nation do better,” said Edwards.

The country did do better. It took time, but there was healing and an effort to more forward after multiple political assassinations in ’68. Congress passed laws outlawing discrimination and promoting civil rights that are still being felt today. But one act 50 years ago still serves as a singular moment when struggles largely unseen in this country were revealed to a global audience.

“I said, ‘Wow, these are the bravest men that I’ve ever seen.’ And I said to myself, ‘You know this is going to go down in history,’” said SJSU graduate and former track team member Dr. Jerroll Dolphin. He watched the protest on television from campus.

The symbol of a raised gloved fist has become this school’s legacy. It’s a constant reminder standing for what’s right isn’t always easy or popular but it can have a lasting impact on the culture and the country.

“We were like a road map – the new paradigm – to educate society that they we can come together,” said John Carlos.

An exhibit about athlete activism by Dr. Edwards is currently at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in San Jose. The exhibit ends in November.