John Carlos: Looking Back at a Raised Fist and at a Raised Consciousness

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United States athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right, extend their gloved fists skyward during the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200-meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, Oct. 16, 1968.

John Carlos is probably best known for what seemed to be an act of defiance in the face of the world’s most recognizable event: the 1968 Summer Olympics. But for him and U.S. track and field teammate Tommie Smith, it was an expression of protest against racism in the United States that they felt the world should know about. It’s been more than four decades and eleven Olympiads since he and Smith, wearing their bronze and gold medals, respectively, raised their fists in Black Power salutes to a stunned world. But after all Carlos went through at those games and in the years afterward, he is still eager to talk about it and tells his tale in a book released this year: The John Carlos Story. He spoke with TIME about his experiences from his home in Palm Springs, Calif.

TIME: Why tell your story after 44 years?

John Carlos: I think, first of all, that this is a story that needs to be told. A story of encouragement, of knowledge of history, just plain a story that needs to be told to young and old individuals in the society in which we live. A story of what could happen to anyone who stands up for justice and equality in our society.

TIME: It seems your whole athletic career was a social statement. Did you think it would turn out that way?

JC: I realized early in life I had some gifts. The tell tale sign was when I was about 7 or 8 years old. God was giving me a prelude to what would happen. He showed me a vision of a stadium, of everyone cheering something. I realized it was me when I waved and all the people started booing and throwing things. Lo and behold, 15 years later, that’s exactly what happened and he was showing me what would happen.

(MORE: Mexico 1968: What Really Happened When Two Americans Raised Their Fists)

Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

TIME: After the ’68 Olympics, your life took a very negative turn. Looking back were there things you think you could have done to avoid any of it?

JC: I wouldn’t add nor take anything away because anything that happened to me was secondary to the need to make that demonstration. We wished people would have taken a more serious look as to why it would have been necessary to attempt an Olympic boycott. People would ask us why we would sacrifice our day in the sun to bring these issues to the table. I wish people would have been more clear minded.

TIME: In your book, you seem to still be steadfast in your resolve that what you did in Mexico was right. If you had it to do over again, what more would you have done?

(ARCHIVE: The Olympics: Black Complaint)

JC: There was nothing more that I could do. There’s nothing I could add or take away. The demonstration said what it needed to say. If you’re still interviewing about it 44 years later, it must have hit the nail on the head.

TIME: How is your relationship with Tommie Smith today?

JC: Far better than it was a few years back. I’ve always been Mr. Smith’s friend. At times he’s thought that the light shone on his head as if he were God’s gift to track and field, but we’re joined by the hip. For eternity. Collectively, we owe an explanation to society as to what took place in Mexico. I had to make my adjustments to his feelings about that, but I’m cool with it. And he can work and live and do his thing.

TIME: Has anyone ever apologized for what (Austrialian sprinter and silver medalist) Peter Norman went through? He did nothing more than stand on the podium in solidarity with you and Tommie Smith.

JC: I give him credit every time I open my mouth. The powers that be never gave him the respect he deserved. Peter was like a gift from God to the demonstration. It wasn’t just about blacks and the struggle. It was about anybody who has strength of character. This was a venue open to all ethnic groups so it’s about right versus wrong.

TIME: The world has no less controversy than it did in 1968. But it seems fewer athletes are willing to take political stands the way you did. Why is that?

JC: I think they take stands. They don’t have the public venue we had when we made our statement. We have people taking stands on sexual preference. Steve Nash on the plight of Hispanics, the Miami Heat on Trayvon Martin. We have individuals out there. They don’t get as much publicity on the stances they take, but that might be because it’s not on a world venue. The press has a tendency to write what they are told, not what news is.

(MAGAZINE: After Image)

TIME: What was your view on the London Olympics? Was it an athletic showcase? Was there a place for taking a political stand?

JC: Anytime you have a spectacle, there’s always room to stress concerns you might have within society. If you have the courage to stand up and make your claim, that’s a different story. Whether they would have even televised it 44 years later is another story. For us, I think they’ll pull the plug on us in certain instances today if you attempt to speak your mind. But that’s not a reason for you to stop expressing yourself. There are many technological vehicles today to express ourselves on how to make this a better society.

TIME: Finally, you. What is your outlook today? Are you in a good place? Do people still listen to you and want to hear your story?

JC: It’s been overwhelming, to be factual. It’s refreshing that there are so many people who remember that day and want to learn about that day. To find individuals who weren’t even on the Planet Earth have a thirst to find what courage you had to have to bring a statement like that. It’s been very rewarding from 1968 on. Times have changed where it’s not necessarily a scope on just blacks or minorities, but on the middle class as a whole, and that encompasses every ethnic group. It’s not about what ethnic group you belong to. It’s about repression or oppression you’ve had to deal with in your life.

2 comments
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zaglossus
zaglossus

These two were a disgrace.

Michael Wellman
Michael Wellman

I don't think so.  To me, the Olympics are absolutely the best venue to make a statement to the world about the very real injustices that exist within it.  The Olympic committee tries so very hard to be neutral, which makes it all the more compelling when you temporarily steal that neutrality away from them, and reveal that supposed neutrality for the apathy it truly is.

What the Black Power movement is, and what it was proclaimed in the media to be, are often two different things... indeed, they are different things to different people.  But based on what Mr. Carlos has said in this interview, and in the past, I don't believe him to be on the "Black Seperatist" extreme of the movement.  I believe he was quietly voicing his very real concern about the lack of voice that African Americans had in the governance of affairs in the United States due to their minority status, and due to the many, many societal structures put in place with the intent, or effect, of keeping them there.

In the end, I think this is an ultimately destructive path, since it puts focus on the very thing we need to move past in order to achieve equality: our skin color.  But, at the very least, it brings that conversation to the forefront of society so that we can discuss it and, through that discussion, arrive at the logical conclusion that "race" doesn't exist except as a social construct, and that it is this social construct of race that is keeping our society divided and held back from its true potential.


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