The statue has stood on campus to honor two alumni, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who took the controversial stance at their medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It was a protest over injustice at the height of the civil rights movement.
But when no one was around or looking, a vandal removed Smith's gold medal, perhaps thinking it was made of precious metal.
"It's made out of, as I understand it, like an adobe clay material and then painted, and so it was basically disintegrated," San Jose State University Police Capt. Alan Cavalli said.
Because of its imposing size, few have noticed the medal was missing.
At the statue's 2005 dedication ceremony, Smith explained what was behind their clenched fists.
"It was only done to bring attention to the atrocities of which we were experiencing in a country that was supposed to represent us," he said.
Students on campus today think the vandal was clueless about the historic nature of the statue.
"Probably somebody else who doesn't know the story," student tour leader Ron Rosellon said. "If they do know the story, they'd feel really bad about this whole thing."
The leader of a student group from another school echoes the same sentiment. The statue serves as an important reminder of a chapter of American history that today's students did not experience.
"There's a lot of folks that are out of touch with the movement, the civil rights movement, and I think it won't bring that level of significance," Napa Valley College Student Services spokesperson Howard Willis said. "However, I do know that there are individuals, folks here on campus, that are continually trying to raise the awareness.
The university says it will reexamine security of the statue, but the statue is right in the middle of campus with heavily used sidewalks all around it.
San Jose State police lifted prints from the statue but are still looking for tips or witnesses.