should be our first impulse when we hear that radical heroes are
to be immortalized in fixed poses of bloodless nostalgia. There
is something very wrong with seeing the toothy, grinning face
of Paul Robeson staring back at us from a stamped envelope. Or
the wry expression the US Postal service affixed on Malcolm X
- harmless, wry, inviting, and by extension slanderous.
erupted in earnest when I heard that San Jose State University
would be unveiling a statue of two of its alums, Tommie Smith
and John Carlos. The 20-foot-high structure would be a commemoration
of their famed Black Gloved salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico
City. I dreaded the thought that this would be the athletic equivalent
to Lenin's Tomb: when you can't erase a radical history, you simply
are not without foundation. Smith and Carlos's frozen moment in
time has been consumed and regurgitated endlessly by the wide
world of corporate sports. But this process has taken place largely
without any kind of serious discussion about who these men were,
the ideas they held, and the price they paid.
relief, I report that the statue does Smith and Carlos justice,
and then some. It is a lyrical work of art, and a fitting tribute
to two amazing athletes who rose to their moment in time. Credit
should go to the artist, a sculptor who goes by the name Rigo23.
Rigo23's most important decision was to leave Smith and Carlos's
inventively radical and little discussed symbology intact.
On the statue, as in 1968, Smith and Carlos wear wraps around
their necks to protest lynching and they are not wearing shoes
to protest poverty. Rigo23 made sure to remember that Carlos'
Olympic jacket - in a shocking breach of etiquette - was zipped
open, done so because as Carlos said to me, "I was representing
shift workers, blue-collar people, and the underdogs. That's why
my shirt was open. Those are the people whose contributions to
society are so important but don't get recognized."
most controversial aspect of the statue is that it leaves off
Australian silver medalist Peter Norman altogether. This seems
to do Norman a disservice considering that he was not a passive
player in 1968 but wore a solidarity patch on his Olympic jacket
so the world would know which side he was on.
did this, over the initial objections of John Carlos, so people
could climb up on the medal stand with Smith and Carlos and do
everything from pose for pictures to lead speak-outs. Norman who
traveled to the unveiling ceremony from Australia endorsed the
design wholeheartedly understanding that its purpose is less to
mummify the past than inspire the future. "I love that idea,"
said Norman. "Anybody can get up there and stand up for something
they believe in. I guess that just about says it all."
main reason the statue is so good, so different, from things like
Martin Luther King, Jr. shot glasses and Mohandas Ghandi mouse
pads, is that it was the inspiration not of the school's Board
of Trustees but a group of students who pushed and fought for
the school to pay proper respect to two forgotten former students
that epitomized the defiance of a generation.
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."
- Tommie Smith
the day of the unveiling was not merely a celebration of art or
sculpture but a bittersweet remembrance of what Smith and Carlos
endured upon returning to the United States, stripped of their
medals and expelled from Olympic Village. Smith recalled, "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."
said, "My family had to endure so much. They finally figured out
they could pierce my armor 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."
But it was
also a day to speak explicitly about the challenges of the future
and not turning living breathing struggles into a history that
is an inanimate as a hunk of marble. "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."
said, "There is often a misunderstanding of what the raised fists
signified. It was about the civil rights movement, equality for
man... The issues are still there today and they'll be there in
Beijing [at the 2008 summer games]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."
But the last
word went to Tommie Smith, proud of the past but with an understanding
of the challenges in the future. "I don't feel vindicated," Smith
said. "To be vindicated means that I did something wrong. I didn't
do anything wrong. I just carried out a responsibility. We felt
a need to represent a lot of people who did more than we did but
had no platform, people who suffered long before I got to the
victory stand... We're celebrated as heroes by some, but we're
still fighting for equality."
when it came time to unveil the statue, the Star Spangled Banner
was played - as a symbol of "how far we've come" since 1968. There
was one problem: the curtain became snagged on the statue's raised
fists. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we need our anti-racist
history and our anti-racist heroes now more than ever. We need
more fists gumming up the works.
Dave Zirin's new book, "What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance
in the United States," is now in stores. You can receive his column,
Edge of Sports, every week by emailing edgeofsports-
[email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].