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SJSU, Olympic History Unfolds From a Sheet
CIVIL RIGHTS PROTEST BANNER FROM ’68 OLYMPICS TOPS EXHIBIT
It is nothing more than a very old bedsheet, yellowed with age, creased permanently, inked roughly with the words “Let Us March.”
But as an artifact from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, it conjures the story of one tumultuous week 38 years ago when two San Jose athletes thrust America’s struggle for racial justice onto the world stage.
Now, this twin-sized top sheet is being considered as the focal point of an important exhibit at History San Jose, scheduled to open in January. Called “Speed City: From Civil Rights to Black Power,” the show chronicles the rich history of social activism in San Jose State University’s athletic department.
The protest banner is now in San Jose, on loan from its Mexico City owner, and local officials said they’re interested in finding a patron who will pay to acquire it for the museum.
“There’s no memorabilia related to this from the Games,” curator Urla Hill said, watching last week as museum acquisition director Monica Tucker unwrapped the box that contained the sheet.
“It’s a major, major big deal for me,” Hill said.
For Hill and other historians, the protest banner is an important remnant of a critical period. On Oct. 16, 1968, San Jose State sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos — shoeless, black-gloved and wearing black scarves — raised their clenched fists during a medal ceremony in a controversial silent protest for civil rights. Both had won medals in the 200-meter dash.
The athletes were expelled from the Games by Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage for mixing politics with sports. In the days that followed, other athletes in the Olympic Village expressed their solidarity. One archival photo from Mexico City shows a sheet, hanging from an Olympic Village window, emblazoned with the message: “Down with Brundage.”
No one knows what happened to the Brundage banner, and no one is certain what role the “Let Us March” banner played in the protests. It was found 38 years ago by Jorge Gonzalez, 71, who was at the time supervisor of the laundry department in the Olympic Village. He oversaw the washing of tens of thousands of bedsheets and clothes during the Games.
Gonzalez, who is now retired and lives in Mexico City, said by telephone that he doesn’t remember the exact day he saw the sheet in a pile of dirty laundry.
“But I saw it had black marks, looking more dirty than the others,” he said.
Examining it later that day, he saw the writing for the first time. After the Olympic Games were over, Gonzalez said, he received permission from Olympic officials to keep the blanket.
“I knew that people were fighting for human rights,” he said. “I thought there might have been a relation between the blanket and the protests. I didn’t think at that moment it was something great.”
The banner — Gonzalez and others in Mexico refer to it as a blanket — first drew public notice in 2003, when newspapers and other Mexico publications were preparing stories about the 35th anniversary of the Olympics in Mexico City. Gonzalez called the Mexico City newspaper, El Universal, and thus unfolded, literally, the 35-year-old story.
Shortly after that, Gonzalez took the banner to Montreal for safekeeping by his son, Carlos, and his wife, Hilda Oliver.
Oliver then began a search for a home for the banner. Her search led her to Urla Hill.
Hill, 43, had been doing dissertation research on the story of “Speed City,” a term coined for the group of San Jose State University athletes, including Carlos and Smith, who excelled in track events. The exhibit that Hill is curating begins after World War II, when San Jose State began recruiting minority athletes shunned by other universities and colleges.
Tommie Smith, 62, reached by telephone at home in Atlanta, said he does not remember any protest banners from the Olympics. Smith retired last year from coaching track and field at Santa Monica College.
“During that time, I was getting out of Dodge,” he joked, “not signing blankets.”
Smith returned to San Jose last year for the unveiling of a sculpture at San Jose State — depicting him and Carlos making their defiant power salute. He said he would be interested in seeing an artifact from that time in his life.
The small non-profit museum does not have an acquisition budget, Tucker said. Gonzalez is asking for $5,000. Museum officials said they hope that a donor will come forward.
Tucker and other museum officials said they’ve no reason to doubt the authenticity of the banner. In the world of museum collecting, “a primary source,” like Gonzalez is hard to beat.
“Who would make up a story like that?” she said.