John Carlos tells story behind moment in Mexico
Everyone knows the image, one of the most powerful in American history — two black men, raising their fists atop the Olympic podium — but most don’t know the story behind the scene.
The world may only know John Carlos, the bronze medalist for the 200-meter sprint in the 1968 Olympics, for that one moment of protest alongside gold medalist Tommie Smith, but now his new autobiography, “The John Carlos Story,” reveals the untold tales leading up to and following that fateful day.
Carlos, born in 1945, grew up in Harlem, N.Y., at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. The son of a shoemaker and a Jamaican-born nurse’s aide, Carlos was enamored with the Olympics, and was determined to get there someday.
The young athlete was also deeply moved by the poverty around him in Harlem. One day he saw train cars parked nearby, full of food, so he decided he would become a modern-day Robin Hood — stealing food from the train to distribute to families in his neighborhood.
Every night Carlos would go to the train, lift a 25-pound box of food on each shoulder and run back to home to give the goods to his neighbors. The police eventually caught onto his scheme, but Carlos was so fast that he could outrun them, even with 50 pounds of weight on his shoulders.
Growing up, Carlos was also fascinated with Malcolm X. The boy — his legs much shorter than the minister’s — would jog beside Malcolm everywhere he went, tossing questions at him about important issues of the day.
“It was actually good exercise for me,” Carlos writes. “Looking back, it must have been the most unique workout regimen for an Olympic hopeful: stealing boxes off trains and trailing after Malcolm X.” Both of these prepared Carlos to become a world-class athlete, but also shows that for him, sports and politics were always intertwined.
In high school, Carlos joined his school’s track team. Without money or equipment, the team ran sprints in the school cafeteria, dodging puddles of ketchup leftover from lunchtime. But Carlos excelled — setting records across the region — and soon found many prestigious universities eyeing him, like UCLA, Berkeley and San Jose State.
But Carlos had a tough time securing a track scholarship from these schools because he received poor grades as the result of his dyslexia. Nevertheless, he received a scholarship to East Texas State University and headed there with his new wife, Kim, and their baby daughter, Kimme.
In the racial turmoil of the 1960s, black athletes began to join in the struggle. By 1967, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was formed, and Carlos immediately jumped on board. The OPHR’s demands included banning South Africa from the games and restoring Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title. Until those demands were met, the OPHR encouraged black athletes to boycott the 1968 games.
Martin Luther King Jr. was also instrumental in this movement, and planned to travel to Mexico City to show support for black athletes. This support deeply moved Carlos.
But King’s assassination deflated much of the momentum for the OPHR, and the boycott fizzled out. Carlos easily qualified for the U.S. Olympic track team, and headed to Mexico City searching for a new plan to protest the way “the Olympics were being used to create a false vision of what it meant to be black in America.” The massacre of hundreds of Mexican students engaged in non-violent protest, which occurred just before the start of the games, only added more fire to his cause.
Before their race, Carlos and fellow African American sprinter Tommie Smith decided that if they made it to the medal podium, they would do something to draw attention to the suffering of blacks in the U.S. Smith ran the 200-meter race in a world-record time of 19.83 seconds, with Carlos shortly behind him at 20.10 seconds — so the pair captured gold and bronze.
Taking their place on the medal podium, Smith and Carlos raised black-gloved fists in the air as the national anthem started playing — a symbol of black unity. Around their necks hung beads to signify lynchings in the South, and the black socks on their shoeless feet represented the poverty African Americans lived in back home. Silver medalist Peter Norman, of Australia, also expressed his solidarity by wearing an OPHR button on his jacket. “That race was brotherhood in motion,” Carlos writes.
Just moments after Carlos and Smith raised their arms in the air, the backlash began. The stadium erupted in a roar of booing and the IOC immediately kicked the pair out of the Olympic village. When they returned to the U.S. the media lambasted them — journalist Brent Musburger, now a sportscaster for ESPN, called them “a pair of black-skinned storm troopers.”
The backlash would haunt Carlos and Smith for years. Carlos could not find employment and soon he and his family spiraled into poverty and depression. “There were times when dinner meant oatmeal and cream of wheat,” he said. “The lack of money translated into an unbearable tension inside our family.” Desperate to find work, the world-class athlete even worked tending to people’s lawns and bagging groceries. Despite the obstacles, “I never had any regrets about what we did in 1968,” he wrote. “Not even when times were the darkest.”
After all, “How can you ask someone to live in the world and not have something to say about injustice?” he writes.
Only recently, around the 40-year anniversary of the 1968 Olympics, Americans have begun to re-embrace Carlos and Smith. A statue of the pair was constructed at San Jose State University, which also granted them honorary doctorates. Today, Carlos works as a high school guidance counselor.
Sports writer Dave Zirin, who co-authored the book, said when Carlos approached him for the project, “He didn’t have to ask me twice.”
For the first sports editor at The Nation magazine, “why did he do it” and “why do we still care” were at the heart of this work. “A lot of people know the moment — the fists in the air — but they don’t know the movement,” Zirin said at a book signing at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. last week. “But what was going on in their heads?”
His talent offered the “promises of privilege,” Zirin continued, “But John Carlos rejected all of that … [and] he paid a terrible price.”
For Zirin, Carlos’ story is still powerful more than 40 years later because “dissent is bubbling in this country,” and cited Troy Davis’ execution and the Occupy Wall Street protests as examples.
After everything that happened, Carlos still doesn’t see himself as a hero. “I ain’t no different than anyone in that stadium in Mexico City,” he said at the book signing. “With the exception that I’m willing to take a shot to make the world better.”