Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Homage to SJSU Athletes is More Than Sum
of Its Parts

A new documentary reveals the hurdles faced in making San Jose State's
statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos a reality
A new documentary reveals the hurdles faced in making San Jose State's statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos a reality. Photo by David Schmidt, via SJSU

The iconic statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at San Jose State University continues to attract visitors from far and wide. However, what's not common knowledge is the complicated struggle that unfolded behind the scenes just to bring the statue to fruition.

Some serious political tightrope-walking took place, right from the initial idea stage and through the fundraising process, then with the request for proposal, and all the way to the final unveiling in October of 2005. None of it was a piece of cake.

Now, thanks to local gadfly and filmmaker Cotton Stevenson, a 20-minute documentary, STAND, includes original rare footage of the statue being created, as well as footage of Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman speaking at the unveiling ceremony in 2005, an event this columnist attended. On Friday, Jan. 18, the San Jose Peace and Justice Center at 48 S. Seventh St. will screen the film at 7pm, followed by a Q&A session with the filmmaker.

The debut screening of STAND took place last week at CreaTV, revealing the story behind the story, especially how the whole project was indeed a student process from beginning to end. In the film, we get interviews with Rigo, the artist, as well as Alfonso De Alba, Associated Students executive director at the time, whose oversight of the coordination, creation, construction and dedication of the statue became a part of his legacy.

The words of Erik Grotz, the student who came up with the original idea, appear in the film via voiceover. Grotz, then the student body president, learned about the heroics of Smith and Carlos in Prof. Cobie Harris' class, but was perplexed as to why there wasn't even a plaque anywhere on campus memorializing the story of these distinguished alumni. Grotz wanted to rectify such an embarrassing situation and approached De Alba with his concerns. After an initial meeting, they agreed to draft a resolution and then commission a sculptural tribute to the historic 1968 moment. Robert Milnes, then director of the School of Art and Design, consulted them on how to craft a request for proposal, since none of the students involved were artists and thus didn't know how such things worked. And throughout the movie, we get to see marvelous footage of Rigo casting the arms, legs and heads of Smith and Carlos in bronze and fiberglass, in his studio, before cutting each individual tile by hand, on site, at SJSU, and placing the tiles onto the statue.

The resulting monument became much greater than the sum of all the participants, plus a testament to student activism, student resolve and student engagement. The story will inspire any current student to rise above their struggles and create something greater than themselves. Had students not taken such a bold initiative, that statue would not be standing there today.

After the screening, De Alba offered some harrowing details about the campus politics that transpired behind the scenes throughout the process of getting the project done. He tended to downplay how miserable it was, but he spilled some juicy tidbits. Just as Smith and Carlos received death threats following their heroic protest on the podium in 1968, so did De Alba when trying to drum up support for the statue. The haters on campus apparently didn't realize their office phone numbers came through on the system when leaving a death threat in someone's voicemail.

Predictably, the San Jose city government didn't seem to understand the importance of the statue, either. The initial location was supposed to be on San Carlos just inside campus from Fourth Street. De Alba said the city stymied him with an excuse—some claptrap about how light rail still might possibly go through there in some future decade, so that location wasn't acceptable to them.

On the good side, since Aussie Peter Norman did not have the means to attend the unveiling in 2005, De Alba found money to get him here. The trip allowed Norman to reconnect with Smith and Carlos for the first time since the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Sadly, Norman passed away in 2006.