John Carlos has a lot to say about a lot of things. This is one guy who doesn’t believe in not speaking his mind. He is not shy about his thoughts and what he believes in.
The silent protest in 1968, in which he and Tommie Smith exercised on the medal podium after finishing third and first, respectively, in the men’s 200 meters, might be the only time where Carlos didn’t open his mouth to rattle the intellectual cages of so many people.
But given the background and circumstances of what preceded the unforgettable image of Carlos and Smith standing with no shoes on during the medal ceremony with a single, black-gloved fist punctuating the Mexico City, Mexico thin air, Carlos didn’t have to say a thing at that moment. His actions, along with that of Smith’s, would do all of the talking.
“It (silent protest) was reflective on the treatment of people of color here in the United States, blacks in particular, people of color here in the United States and around the world,” Carlos said. “Jim Crow or any other Crow…We were basically stepping out and said this is something we need to deal with. We can no longer accept this for being the norm.”
The norm for Carlos, Smith and the other black athletes in Mexico City representing the United States was hate-spiked laws pushing racial oppression, fear-driven talking points that infringed on their liberties and being deprived of their constitutional rights to vote and to free speech.
In short, about the only consistent things black people could look forward to was church bombings, police dogs tearing at their flesh, being spat on, and firefighters bringing their waterhoses to spray tons of water on them.
Being black in America was like being in sin.
While they were there putting up a good front as athletic ambassadors for their country, America was still treating African Americans like third-class citizens. Second-class citizenship was too good of a description for what America shamelessly did to black people. To a degree, that holds true today. A dog has more rights than a black man does. Look at what happened to Michael Vick.
The boiling point finally came to America’s racist head after Smith streaked across the tape at the finish line in world-record form, while Carlos brought up the rear with his bronze medal placement. Carlos and Smith then rocked the Olympics to its core with their solidarity protest that basically said the oppressed had enough. It was time to stand against the will of Jim Crow bigotry and continued inhumane treatment of African Americans.
“Black emergence from 1967-69, those three years were critical years relative to black emergence, in terms of black athletes stepping up to the plate and saying, “I want to be respected as a black man or black woman,’” Carlos said. “Yes, I am an athlete, but that is just one small part of my life. I think we were starting to excel along those areas to find who we were as a group of people.”
With that being said, it is safe to say that when Carlos or Smith speaks, whether it is about topics of race, politics, civil rights or even track and field, people tend to listen.
Carlos lived the first hand experience of racism when you consider the 1968 Olympics took place the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, when cities across America burned with rioting and Jim Crow racism continued to permeate in this country’s heartbeat. Caught up in the middle all of this drama were black athletes, who were almost forced to side with those who called for a boycott of the Summer Games or be dismissed as a sellout.
The call for a boycott was more than a sporting gesture. It loomed larger than any athletic event, including the Olympics. It was real. There were enough galvanizing moments in 1968 to put into a century. The Vietnam War raged. Two months after King was gunned down, Robert Kennedy lost his life to an assassin’s bullet.
Adding to this chaos was the mayhem at Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza where students were allegedly massacred by the country’s government police just days before the Olympics even began. Needless to say, this was a time of bedlam.
Eventually, the pull for black athletes competing in the 1968 Olympics to boycott fell through. That deflated any tension of choosing which side to be on.
“To be honest with you, there weren’t any tension,” said Carlos. “We had our program together, in terms of what we were attempting to boycott. Once the boycott fell through, everybody was sure what they would do on the track. So there weren’t any tension. Everybody knew pretty much what their mission was, their task was during those (Summer) Games. And everything went along accordingly.”
Except for the part of being banned from the rest of the Olympics, which Carlos and Smith were after their well-documented stunt. During this time of civil unrest and war, both inland and abroad, for African Americans, it was a time of fighting for equal treatment of the law as civil rights became the rallying cry for justice.
Justice is not something that Carlos and Smith would receive after their perceived international fist-pump flip to America as they stood in solidarity against the indignation spewed on a group of people called to represent the very country who oppressed them.
To most of America, these two black men didn’t do anything to be celebrated. They committed treason. For years, Carlos and Smith were treated as such. It would take decades before people would begin to acknowledge what Carlos and Smith did was heroic. But there are still haters out there who still think what the black duo did was nothing short of open face rebellion against their own country.
“The biggest snowball, so to speak, were the ones oppressed, who were relieved, who were honored and were excited about what we had done on that victory stand. Because that, in essence, was a sedative for the pain they had to endure for the duration of time since slavery days. It was a sedative for them to say, ‘Thank God, somebody got up and let the world know how we felt as black people and how we felt as people of color for the injustices that’s been done to us,’” Carlos said.
“You know, it’s one thing to talk about your history and feel for your history. It’s another thing and you sit back and you see all these years gone by and we’ve haven’t had one President of the United States step up and say, ‘I, as president of this nation, I would like to extend a sincere apology for what has happened in our ancestry past.’ That’s the way healing starts. We’re still having atrocities taking place. We talk about going to the moon. We talk about leaving the earth and this and that, and we’re still with dealing civil rights and human rights issues.’”
This is an excerpt from “They Ran With Fire,” a book dedicated to the famed Tennessee State Tigerbelles