John Carlos: The Starting Five Interview

John Carlos (Photo provided)

How can you ask someone to live in the world and not have something to say about injustice?” – John Carlos

No one should pay the price for standing up for their dignity. Yet that is what happened to American track and field star John Carlos when he raised his fist in the air with his teammate Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

On October 16, 1968, Smith won the 200 meters in a world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Australia’s Peter Norman came in second with a time of 20.06 and Carlos placed third place with a time of 20.10.

The three athletes went to the medal stand. Smith and Carlos were there to receive their medals, show their dignity, and raise awareness of the oppression that exists in America.

Smith and Carlos received their medals shoeless. They wore black socks which symbolized black poverty Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride. Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with American blue collar workers and wore beads for “the individuals that were lynched or killed, that no-one said a prayer for, and those that were hung and tarred.” (More Than a Game, Jan Stradling)

Smith, Carlos, and Norman wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. OPHR founder Harry Edwards urged black athletes to boycott the games and the actions of Smith and Carlos were inspired by Edwards’ arguments.

Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed during the national anthem as Norman looked on. The gesture became front page news around the world. They should have been celebrated for their actions. Instead, they were booed and shunned and were asked to leave Mexico City. All of them arrived home as outcasts.

Even today, Smith and Carlos (and Peter Norman) do not get the respect they deserve. They still fight the myths surrounding their actions and it’s time we unlearn them. Carlos sets the record straight with sportswriter Dave Zirin in his book, “The John Carlos Story.”

I caught up with Mr. Carlos and we discussed all sorts of things: the Olympic Project for Human Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, track and field, swimming, and the positive impact of their actions.

The John Carlos Story, Haymarket Books (2011)

The opening ceremonies for the XXX Summer Olympics are tonight. What are your feelings right now? What do the ceremonies bring up for you every four years?

Well, I’m glad they’re taking place. I think there are some great opportunities for athletes to show their talents and they should take advantage of those opportunities. But they also remind me of the so-called aristocrat games you might say. The most affluent are ones that run the games, control the games, and oversee the games. The middle and lower classes on the other hand live in and around the areas of the games. Many of them have to vacate their living quarters to build venues and such. Some might return and some never return. There’s a tremendous amount of money that’s made during these games and I wonder if anybody who would go down and see this and that and the sacrifices that were made to host these games, you’d be shocked.

But I’m hearing some good news already coming out of London. I just read today about how they are not tolerating the obnoxious statements, like the ones made by the Greek athlete about African athletes. The Olympics have made some progress along those lines. But for me, I’m just happy the games are here and the athletes get a chance to compete.

Are the Summer Olympics always a busy time for you? Are you always getting requests for interviews every four years just to talk about the actions you, Tommie Smith, and Peter Norman did 44 years ago in Mexico City?

Yes. They always focus on me and Tommie but my philosophy about that is you can’t talk about [’68 Summer Olympics] without John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Peter Norman and you can’t have Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos without the [’68 Olympics]. We surrounded ourselves with one another, you know what I’m saying? It’s like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Abbot and Costello, or Heckle and Jeckle. We just bonded and I think we will continued to be bonded throughout history.

The Olympic Project for Human Rights sent a strong message prior to the 1968 Summer Olympics. It was about boycotting the games and protesting racial segregation in the United States and American sports. In your book, you talk about a conversation you had with Dr. Martin King about the Olympic Project for Human Rights. What was the conversation about? Why did he support your actions and the boycott? What did he want to see accomplished?

I asked that very same question to Dr. King. What he told me was, John, imagine going to a tremendous lake. You paddle a while to the center of the lake and you sit there and wait until everything is calm and serene. He continued and said, then you reach into the boat, pick out a big rock and you drop it in. Then what happens? I said, it creates waves and Dr. King said, absolutely. That rock that you drop is the boycott. The waves that you generate is sending a message throughout the lake, which in turn will resonate throughout the world.

Dr. King thought the Olympic games was a great opportunity to expose the atrocities taking place relative to race relations, not just in the United States, but throughout the world. He really thought a demonstration would start waking people up, to come to the table and have some dialogue and deal with these issues.

The greatest thing, he said about [the Olympic Project for Human Rights] was that that we were a non-violent activity. A lot of people seem to forget that our demonstration was not about violence. We weren’t about no guns. We were not about anything like that. We wanted to raise awareness, take a time out, and reconsider our humanity.

Do you think Dr. King’s support for the OPHR and your actions get swept under the rug, forgotten, or not known about?

Well, the general public is not aware of a lot of things. If you take back into account that we were concerned about humanity, the general public doesn’t know much about those who lost their lives 10 days before the games started in Mexico City. Relative to Dr. King being a part of this, it was this incident that was shoved under the carpet.

There’s more that got swept under the rug. Look at IOC chairman Avery Brundage during that time. Brundage was an anti-Semite and white supremacist who gave Nazi Germany the Olympic games in 1936. He let South Africa and Rhodesia during times of apartheid and black freedom struggles to compete. People don’t know Brundage stripped Jim Thorpe of all his medals because he made paltry money once playing baseball. He stripped Thorpe to the point where he could never compete again in the United States. These things have been ignored just like the Tuskegee Airmen and other atrocities that have been committed in American history.

One of the things that I didn’t know about your protest was Jesse Owens telling you and Tommie not to pull any fast ones at the medal stand. Why did he do that? Given what he experienced in his own life and in Berlin during the 1936 Olympics, what made him want to diminish your actions? Did he really believe what he told you?

The USOC used him. Jesse called for a meeting with us in Mexico City before we went on the medal stand and told us not to make a statement. He said not to wear the long black socks because it was going to cut the circulation off in our legs. Then he said to me and Tommie, the black fist is meaningless. When you open it, you have nothing but weak empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. We thought he was out of his mind.

But Jesse Owens was from the old school and Tommie and I and others were from the new school. Jesse thought at the time that the Republican Party would one day turn into a good heart and give him his due. Jesse was like hey man, you’re time is around corner. He just kept telling us to wait and that our day would come. It was like telling ourselves, if we only praised God some more, we wouldn’t be slaves anymore. It’s the same difference.

Jesse thought he was doing the right thing up until the day he died. Then he realized, that what we did was all right along. There was no way that Jesse Owens could pressure us without IOC putting money in his pocket to control our boycott and protest and raise awareness about the perils of society we’re in.

Not sure if you heard but NBC’s Bob Costas made a statement he will have a moment of silence tonight for the 11 Israeli athletes that were murdered 40 years ago. Olympic Committee officials are already telling him not to do that. Did you hear about that? What’s your response to Costas’ actions? Should he do this? Is is appropriate?

No, I think Bob Costas should do that! Those individuals lost their lives during the Olympic games! They were there to represent their country and they lost their lives in the process. For the Olympic Committee to try and do this again and not recognize what happened, they’re only thinking about their image. You can’t change history and turn it away and say it didn’t happen. It would be a smack in the face not just to those who died but to anyone who was involved in what took place in Munich.

Do you think he will pay the price for what he does from the IOC, NBC, the media or the public?

He may pay the price or he may not pay the price. If he’s got enough basketballs enough to stand behind his convictions and make a statement in regards to the individuals who lost their lives, then he should do it. It’s about your convictions, not the price you pay. It’s irrelevant in order to advance society. I think that Costas and anyone else should have the capacity to say “Yes, I think we should have a moment of silence to those who lost their lives in that particular time.” Update: Costas recognizes the Israeli athletes during the broadcast.

Shifting gears, you wrote in the book that you loved swimming before you got involved in track and field. Why did you like swimming so much growing up?

Ever since I was a little kid, I loved anything that had to do with water, whether it was in the bathtub and swimming in the Harlem river or local pools. Every time I turned on the radio, I’d hear about another person swimming the English Channel. That’s the first thing that caught my attention in terms doing something in the water for the sake of competition.

It sparked me to ask more questions about the sport. Why would someone want to swim the English Channel? How does one even swim it? What kind of athletic skills does it require? What do they get for it? Then I heard on the radio how it was a sport the Olympic games. That’s when I learned that people across the world get together to come together to see who has the best athletics.

So I asked my father was there ever an Olympic champion black swimmer and he said, no. And I said, well I’m going to be the first. I was saying this back in the early 1950s and my father had to pull me aside and talk to me about this. He said it can’t happen and I asked why not? He said, where would you train? You can’t do it in the ocean; you can’t go to the Harlem River; and you can’t go to a public pool. So I asked what I needed and he said private coaches, pools, and pay-to-play swim clubs. I asked my dad why I couldn’t join a club. Was it money? And he said, no, it’s because of the color of your skin.

There was a pool I went to growing up that was in a white neighborhood and had swimming lanes. I asked my dad if I could practice there and he got honest with me. He asked me what happened the last time I was there? I knew the answer. When I jumped in, all of the parents got their kids out of the pool. It was like, “Hurry up, Bobby! Billy! Jeanie! Get out of the water!” It was like some sort of shit that was going to roll off us and onto them. But when I got out of the water, I see 85 percent of these folks out there rubbing suntan lotion and trying to look like me! I was really very confused by all this.

But as time went on, I realized swimming was out and other sports were in. I tried boxing but my mom didn’t like me doing it either. She was a nurse and didn’t want me getting concussions and other related injuries. I never imagined track and field. Running was something you did for other sports, deliver messages, or run from police. Ironically, it was that last reason that made people notice my talents for running.

Do you miss track and field today?

I have a love for the track. But I’m also sad of what it’s become. There’s a lot of kids getting involved with drugs and enhancements. I think that when all is said and done, people will realize that it’s going to destroy the games, period. A lot is going to fall out. A lot of world records that are so far advanced will be taken back because of them. It’s sad.

How should we teach others about your salute on the medal stand for generations to come? How do we educate today’s youth about the actions you, Tommie, and Peter Norman made on the medal stand 48 years ago?

We really need to take a serious look at it terms of why we expressed it and what it was about, first. Why it was necessary, second. And third, look at the situation America and the world was like at that time. America is a young country and we still don’t have an integrated history here. All of these things culminated on the podium stand was based on bias and prejudice at home. It was about making a stand and making people think, why would a group of individuals do something like that?

Why did Jesus Christ died on the cross? If someone had to be the sacrificial lamb to make people come to the realization that if a man was willing to sacrifice his all, then we need to look at why he/she would do it in the first place. We need to find ways to explain to people what racism, prejudice, bigotry, and bias does to our society, period.

We also cannot forget what Peter Norman did for human rights as well. Before the 200 meter finals, Tommie and I told him we were the Olympic Project for Human Rights. We asked asked him if he believed in human rights and he said, of course I believe in human rights. He was a humanitarian in relation to what was happening in his country to the Aboriginal people. He wore a OPHR button on the medal stand and he was shunned in Australia for that! He didn’t disrespect his country! He did nothing but stand at attention and be proud of representing his country with a badge on his jersey that said I believe in human rights!

When he went back, it was like he went back to South Africa. People need to know about Peter Norman. They also need to know the Harvard University Crew team, a group of white individuals, who supported us as well.

But most of all, what people need to understand is that what we did wasn’t controversial. It was about right vs. wrong.

As a new generation of athletes and activists raises its fist, they can rest in confidence that it’s been done before. John Carlos dared and continues to dare to be more than just a brand. He has dared to live by a set of principles at great personal and professional cost. It’s a standard we should all aspire toward if we dare,” – Dave Zirin, The John Carlos Story

From L to R: Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, John Carlos (downloaded at Google images)

7 Responses to “John Carlos: The Starting Five Interview”

  1. Excellent interview CA. Mr. Carlos thanks for coming on the TSF mic. Your conviction has been a lifelong inspiration.

  2. Soulful1 says:

    Excellent article. Mr. Carlos raised a fist for all of Black America, and for injustices worldwide.

  3. Ron Glover says:

    Great piece and inspiring words as always. Thank you Mr. Carlos and thanks again C!

  4. mapoui says:

    In the westindies..Trinidad… carlos and Smith made a terrific impact. you cant imagine.

    great interview. thanks

  5. […] a great interview with former track-and-field Olympian John Carlos over at The Starting Five. Check it out. After being shunned by the sports community for years, John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s famous […]

  6. smallbluehouse says:

    Well done, Christian.

  7. michelle says:

    Very good read!!!!