Tommie Smith & John Carlos receive honorary degrees from CSU & San Jose State

Tommie Smith (left) and John
Carlos (right) on the victory
stand at the 1968 Olympics.
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Commencement participants
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) – When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists high above their heads on the medal podium in Mexico City, their silent protest echoed far beyond the 1968 Olympics.

And nearly 37 years later, the former San Jose State sprinters' controversial statement on black pride soon will get the larger-than-life recognition it deserves.

The school broke ground Friday on the setting for a 23-foot statue of Smith and Carlos at the moment of their galvanizing gesture, which brought the American civil rights movement to international attention. Long after they were initially vilified for their gesture, Smith and Carlos also are scheduled to receive honorary doctorates during commencement on Saturday.

The former runners, still spry and vibrant in their early 60s, were joined by family members and former professors, roommates and Olympic teammates as they turned ceremonial shovels of dirt on a sunny day at San Jose State's campus. The perfect weather turned Carlos' mind to one thing.

"When is the track meet going to start?" he asked with a grin.

"I didn't know what a role model was," continued the 60-year-old Carlos. "I was just doing my thing. ... This is a chance to be remembered long after my time on this planet has passed. That will give any young person the incentive to know that you don't have to wait until retirement age to make your mark on the world."

Smith and Carlos suspected their lives would be forever changed by their defiant stance after winning medals in the 200 meters. Wearing black socks and no shoes to represent black poverty, and raising their fists to symbolize black power, they bowed their heads while listening to the national anthem.

"I know what we represent, and it will be that way until I die," said the 61-year-old Smith. "This is great to come back here when I don't have my spikes on. I'm not running, and I'm not wearing a shield to keep people from firing at me."

After their protest, Smith and Carlos were kicked out of the Olympic village and widely condemned. They lost friends and job opportunities - but they were hailed for their social conscience back at San Jose State, where then-president Robert Clark called them "honorable young men."

Clark, now 95, was unable to attend the groundbreaking ceremony because of his health, but current president Don Kassing and other faculty members echoed his sentiments from nearly four decades earlier.

"Do these men still stand as an example for what must be done for others?" Dr. Ethel Pitts-Walker asked during the groundbreaking ceremony. "Because if they do, our work is not done."

Students and faculty members have led a 2+-year drive to raise funds for the statue, which should be installed by the end of the year.

Designed by an innovative multimedia artist named Rigo 23, the statue will have a fiberglass body and steel structure covered by bronze, standing on a concrete replica of the Mexico City medal podium. Their facial likenesses will be captured by three-dimensional scanning technology, while only their gloved fists and socks will be painted black.

Smith and Carlos attended San Jose State when the school's respected track program earned the nickname "Speed City," but few contemporary students even knew the sprinters were Spartans. Erik Grotz, the former student who spearheaded the initial student-government resolution that led to the statue, was stunned to realize these iconic heroes hadn't been honored.

"They did something on the world stage that mattered so deeply," said Grotz, who now works for the Department of Homeland Security. "You can be young and make a difference. That's what everybody can draw from it. It will spark something in your mind."

Smith and Carlos both became educators in California, though Smith plans to retire next month before moving to Georgia. But both intend to remain involved in issues of social justice for the rest of their lives, and their statue will ensure that legacy in San Jose.

"This school already has a special place in my heart," Carlos said, "but now that I'm going to be on a statue, it will just be that much sweeter here."