Recognition for Tommie Smith, John Carlos and the Olympic Project for Human Rights

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Recognition for Tommie Smith, John Carlos and the Olympic Project for Human Rights

The Olympic Project for Human Rights (O.P.H.R.), a movement for social equality and human rights, arose out of black student activism at San Jose State College in 1967. Within its short history as an active organization (1967–1968), the O.P.H.R. significantly impacted the prevailing, naive view of sport as detached from politics—a bastion of brotherhood, social harmony and understanding, where what counts is not the color of one’s skin but only how well one plays the game. In orchestrating black athletes’ well-publicized protests against social injustice, the O.P.H.R. was an integral part of the mid-twentieth-century struggle for human rights. Goals such as curtailment of participation of all-white teams and individuals from the apartheid Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in all United States and Olympic events” were paramount (Edwards, 1969, pp. 58–59).

O.P.H.R. veterans have followed with interest two recent projects with sport-and-politics themes that could rekindle efforts to promote human rights by exploiting that connection.

One is a project at San Jose State University involving the erection of a statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the O.P.H.R., with raised gloved fists, on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The other is the History San José organization’s “Speed City: Roots and Legacy” project, an outgrowth of the scholarship and dedication of doctoral candidate Urla Hill. Both recall significant organizations, activities and events at San Jose State that connect sport and politics. These efforts to promote social reform on a national and international level are important in the history of San Jose State University and the City of San Jose.

There is little disagreement that the Smith–Carlos victory-stand salute highlighted for the world the importance of taking a stand against social injustice. San Jose State University and the City of San Jose’s honoring of these athletes’ courage and sacrifice helps revive interest in a global problem, in part by giving these men new opportunities to publicly reiterate O.P.H.R. themes. (The organization’s philosophy and goals are expressed in the concluding statement of the 1968 National Conference on Black Power, in Philadelphia [see Edwards, 1969, pp. 179–180].)

While not as widely publicized as the statue honoring Smith and Carlos, the “Speed City: Roots and Legacy” project is having the same effect in bringing renewed attention to them, among others, and to the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The name Speed City derives from the high concentration of world-class black sprinters in San Jose in the mid-1960s, many but not all of whom ran for San Jose State. They are said to have been drawn there by the college’s long and rich history of cultivating top, mostly black, sprinters. At a presentation of “Speed City” sponsored by Barnes & Noble Booksellers and History San José (attended and videotaped by the author) the panelists spoke of pioneering the rise of judo as an Olympic sport and breakthroughs in sprinting that led to world records. Eloquently explaining the trials and tribulations of surviving in the face of widespread racial discrimination, they won nods of agreement and empathy from the audience. Over all, the large and receptive audience seemed old enough to have attended college during the era of student protests. Their comments implied they saw the black student movement of 1967–1968 clearly and understood the flow of events, for the first time.


Later this year, an exhibit entitled “Speed City: From Civil Rights to Black Power” is scheduled for presentation at the History San José facility. It is a collection of sports memorabilia and information contributed by coaches, athletes and the university. Plans for the collection to tour the country include various athletes presenting the history and promoting education, equality and the struggle for human rights.

Much work lies ahead for all who are willing. Projects like the Smith–Carlos statue and “Speed City: Roots and Legacy” are timely developments that may help sensitize us to the persistence of social inequality and reignite the struggle against it. This discussion and the projects mentioned herein signal opportunities of joining together for common goals. Leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games and the 40th anniversary of the victory-stand demonstration, it is high time for collaborating with those who are committed to making the most of the current interest in the connection of sport and politics on a national and international level.


Edwards, H. (1969). The revolt of the Black athlete. New York, NY: Free Press.

Ken Noel
Olympic Project for Human Rights

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