[Marxism] Tommie Smith & John Carlos

Anna Fierling anna_fierling at yahoo.com
Wed Oct 19 13:38:19 MDT 2005

When Fists are Frozen: The Statue of Tommie Smith and
John Carlos
By Dave Zirin

Trepidation 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

These fears 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 embalm it.

These fears 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

With palpable 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."

The 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.

But Rigo23 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."

Perhaps the 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

And, fittingly, 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."

Carlos also 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."

Peter Norman 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

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."

Fittingly, 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

Dave Zirin is the author of "'What's My Name, Fool?':
Sports and Resistance in the United States" published
by Haymarket Books. You can subscribe to his column by
sending a blank email to
edgeofsports-subscribe at zirin.com
Reach the author at dave at edgeofsports.com

Anna Fierling

"Freiheit ist immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden."
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