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Do you know the way to San Jose?

November 07, 2008
On the evening of Oct. 16, 1968, two black U.S. athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, accepted medals for the 200 meter race at the Olympics in Mexico City. As they stepped on the riser to be recognized, Smith and Carlos lowered their heads and raised their fists, staging a protest that drew attention to human rights issues in the United States and across the globe. October 2008 marked the 40th anniversary of this moment in history.  
This protest was the culmination of a project the two, along with Harry Edwards, started a year earlier as students at San Jose State University in California. The effort was called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Recently Dr. Kevin Witherspoon, Lander University assistant professor of history, traveled to California and to the San Jose campus to give a presentation and help celebrate the mark left by Smith and Carlos on those Olympics, the United States and the world.
"What officials were trying to do with the recent San Jose State event was encourage student activism," said Witherspoon. "They were doing that by looking back at the most famous instance of activism on their campus. So, organizers of the event suggested that I fit the topic of activism into a presentation surrounding the historical significance of Smith and Carlos' actions."
Witherspoon did so by encouraging those in attendance to seize the moment. "That's what Smith and Carlos did. This was their one moment on the stage. So I asked the audience, 'what will you do when your moment arises,'" he said.
Witherspoon's presentation was part of a week of activities that revolved around the anniversary of the protest by Smith and Carlos.
Witherspoon, who presented on the actual anniversary day, Oct. 16, was tapped for the event by the California university because of his new book, "Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games," which was released this past summer. His book focuses closely on Mexican identity leading up to, during and after the Olympics, but Witherspoon also writes about the details surrounding the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
While Witherspoon was at the anniversary celebration the two Olympic athletes who made activist history were not. It so happened, that Smith and Carlos were in Mexico.
"During my presentation, the question came up," said Witherspoon, "'why are Smith and Carlos in Mexico tonight and not here.' They were more popular in other parts of the world than they were in the United States. They suffered terribly in this country when they came back. So even 40 years later, I guess there was some lingering resentment for that."
Smith and Carlos were scheduled to speak the following day, along with Olympic Project for Human Rights co-founder Harry Edwards.
Witherspoon cited his presentation in San Jose as somewhat of an unreal opportunity. After all, he spent years focusing on this period in history while writing his book. And while he didn't get to present with Smith and Carlos, Witherspoon did not go to California without getting to open for a big name celebrity.
"This experience was like a dream," said Witherspoon. "One of the reasons is that San Jose State was the genesis of the whole movement. Another reason is that as a history professor from a small university in South Carolina, I never thought I'd be opening for Chuck D."
Chuck D, front-man for the late 80s rap group Public Enemy, followed Witherspoon's lecture on the history of the Smith and Carlos protest. Before and after the event, Witherspoon had time to get to know the recording artist.
"Chuck D's wife is a history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara," said Witherspoon. "He has a tremendous appreciation for and knowledge of history. I was very impressed with his speech. He tied in Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and a bunch of early rap figures that influenced him."
One of the rap artist's major points, according to Witherspoon, was that young people need to remember those who came before them. Witherspoon said that Chuck D wanted students to understand that he was able to show up at the anniversary event possessing rights and privileges because of the people who had sacrificed in the past.
Chuck D signed an event poster and gave it to Witherspoon. The message above the signature was reminiscent of one of Public Enemy's most popular songs. It read, "Please fight the power."