John Carlos and the ’68 Olympics protest: ‘There was no fear’

Black consciousness is nothing new.  So the reaction to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and other victims of police violence, spurred a racial reckoning for the United States. The lightning-rod movement Black Lives Matter has been a rallying cry for many in the chase for racial justice. Dr. John Carlos has seen this scene play out before.

The raucous protests around the country and the world echoing the outrage over the public viewing in the killing of Floyd, the slow-burn media attention to the murder of the 26-year-old Taylor, and other noted deaths of Black victims at the hands of law enforcement and vigilante-style executions like in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, has pushed the social justice climate to the edge from which there may be no return.

American cities have been lit up with both peaceful marches and rioting demonstrations by people looking for a change from the systemic and structural racism embedded in this country, a way of life that has had a seat at America’s table for far too long.the

“To see today, to see so many individuals that are concerned about humanity,” Carlos said in an interview with News4usonline Editor Dennis J. Freeman. “It’s not merely Black individuals wanting to raise their fist or to take a knee; it’s society as a whole, saying that we all are raising our fists and taking a knee. What you see here in the United States and view it around the world, everyone is putting their fist to the sky or taking a knee or marching or raising their voice. What it is humanity has come alive 53 years for it to blossom, but it’s here today, and it’s universal. That’s very refreshing, very rewarding, and I’m so happy for my little part that I was able to play in.”

Dr. John Carlos
SJSU Inspiration to Innovation Gala 2018 at the Events Center on the campus of San Jose State University on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, in San Jose, Calif. ( Josie Lepe/San Jose State University )

His little part in American history is a painful past, a colored glass reminder of where this country still needs to go.  Carlos understands America’s plight all too well. At 75, Carlos is now enjoying his golden years. But there was a time when he could not sit back and do that.

Carlos was just a young man making his lot in life in the 1960s, where murder and mayhem often associated themselves with Black Americans. That lot came by way of track and field. Carlos was one of the best sprinters in the world. That avenue would take Carlos all the way to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico.

This is where the then 23-year-old Carlos should have shined. He would finish third in the men’s 200 meters on Oct. 16, 1968. American teammate and fellow San Jose State track star Tommie Smith won the race in record-breaking time. In what appeared to be a rather ordinary award-podium ceremony afterward turned into a spotlight to the single most powerful human rights protest in sports history.

Wearing Black socks and displaying Olympic Project for Human Rights patches on their uniform jackets with no shoes at the podium, Carlos and Smith showed the world that they were more than athletes when they gestured to the sky in near unison with a single black-gloved salute. The sky came falling not too long after that.

The famous demonstration by Carlos and Smith rocked the Olympics. It also forced Carlos and Smith into unofficially being labeled as the two most hated men in America. Instead of being hailed as heroes, Carlos and Smith were booted out of the Olympics and sent home. They would become social outcasts for years. Carlos had a simple explanation for the duo’s actions.

“We were not there for a Black power demonstration,” Carlos said. “Our Black power movement was on the track. That was the power of Blackness then. We were there for a human rights statement.”

When it came to standing up for human rights, this was one of the reasons why the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was established. Formed by Dr. Harry Edwards, OPHR was considered the social justice equalizer for athletes fighting racism in sport. Carlos and Smith became bonafide members of the organization.

Fighting against racial segregation, OPHR went to war against the International Olympic Committee (IOC), advocating for a boycott of the 1968 Summer Games unless certain demands were met. So it was no coincidence that Carlos and Smith decided to participate in a demonstration that would most certainly warrant immediate attention. What OPHR was not able to do through its failed boycott attempt, Carlos and Smith more than made up for it with their silent protest.

Dr. Harry Edwards
Dr. Harry Edwards, who established the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), speaks at the San Jose University’s Inspiration to Innovation Gala 2018 at the Events Center on the campus of San Jose State University on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, in San Jose, Calif. ( Josie Lepe/San Jose State University).

“It created a new paradigm. It created a new vision for all individuals, Black, old, middle-aged as well as young,” Carlos said. “What we did in ’68, we created a blueprint that they can follow and say yes, these young individuals chose to sacrifice whatever was before them to make a statement for the future. You have to take into account at that time I just turned 23. Mr. Smith just turned 24.”

Carlos said that the human rights expression he and Smith engaged in on the victory stand was more about the future than the present.

“My philosophy has always been when I stood on that podium at 23-years-old, my life was not that important to me, nowhere near as important as the lives of my kids, my kids’ kids and their peers to make it a better life for them,” Carlos said. “That’s the most important thing, and I think that is something that we’re missing as Black people, Black men in particular. We need to step up because we don’t anticipate things changing overnight, but we definitely have to step up and make it a better world for our children.”

The massive undertaking of protests that spread throughout American cities and overseas in 2020 is similar to the unrest episodes that Carlos saw back in the 1960s. The America that Carlos witnessed during that explosive time was heavy in racial conflict as the Civil Rights Movement was at its pinnacle.

The America that Carlos viewed was daring enough to kill high-profile Black leaders such as Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., within a five-year span during that time period in an attempt to cripple a movement that sought for equal protections under the law. What Carlos also looked at was a nation that treated its Black citizens as nothing more than unwanted pariahs hoping for acceptance.

“You have a lot of civil rights activists that have moved on,” Carlos said. ” There’s man-made icons and there’s God-given icons, a special blade of grass. And they all come. They have young ones right now that are going to fill the shoes like John Lewis, or Martin Luther King or Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks, or John Carlos. Individuals are going to step into our shoes. But when they step into our shoes, this time they’re going to be standing with a stronger paradigm, a stronger vision, with more strength, with more direction, with more courage to fight for those rights. Evolution takes place. We’re here for a period of time and we move on. But as we move on, other individuals move up.”

John Carlos and Tommie Smith
Dr. John Carlos (left) and Dr. Tommie Smith finished first and third in the men’s 200 meters at the 1968 Summer Olympics. The two men later engaged in a human rights demonstration on the victory stand which resulted in the pair being sent back home immediately. Carlos and Smith are now revered for the stance they took in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo credit: San Jose State University

When Carlos and the 24-year-old Smith unsettled the Olympics with their provocative stance, they knew exactly what they were doing. Carlos and Smith chose to stand up for freedom over oppression. The American teammates decided that equality would no longer have to take a backseat to racial injustice.

“There was no fear whatsoever,” Carlos said. “I was stirring about what I did. I felt good about what I did. And at the time I was leaving the victory stand, something was ringing through my brain; and that was they could never put shackles on John Carlos, his mind nor his body. I’m a free man.”

The famous salute by the San Jose State University teammates resulted in condemnation. There weren’t too many places Carlos and Smith could go to in America without being reviled. If they thought the racial situation was bad in the U.S. before the Olympics, the backlash Carlos and Smith received once they got back home took a relentless pounding on their souls.

On a personal front, both men suffered enormously. Smith’s first marriage wound up in divorce. He had to resort to working at a car wash to make money. Carlos would experience an even heavier burden as his first wife would commit suicide years later as an indirect result of the barrage of death threats, verbal assaults, and financial despair the couple undertook.

For what Carlos and Smith had to endure, America’s racist attitude has not changed. Sen. Kamala Harris once said that there’s no “vaccine for racism.” Carlos said a true cure to racism is a work in progress.

“That’s what we’re working on, is the vaccine,” Carlos said. “There is none now. There is no vaccine at this time. Just like the doctors and scientists are in the lab trying to find a true vaccine or this virus, individuals such as myself, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, all of us; Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, we all honor that fashion to try to find this vaccine for racism.”

Both Carlos and Smith are revered today for the stance that they took. As a testimony to what he and Smith did, what Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell, and other athletes at that time stood for in promoting humanity through their Blackness, the sports world has unabashedly taken up that mantle today.

Dr. John Carlos
USTA Hall of Famer Dr. John Carlos attending the San Jose State University’s Inspiration to Innovation Gala 2018 at the Events Center on the campus of San Jose State University on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, in San Jose, Calif. ( Josie Lepe/San Jose State University )

“If I was to take 400 years of dirt and keep piling this dirt on you, it’s going to take some time…although you’re going to feel the weight of it; you feel like you’re suffocating, can’t see. But you know what’s happening is wrong, and it’s going to take some time to remove this dirt from your body. And that’s what has happened in those 53 years. They had to peel the onion skins back to get the courage. We have a built-in factor they put into us way back when, and that’s called the fear factor.”

In 2016, the WNBA and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick led the charge in protesting police brutality in their own individual ways.

Speed-dial it to 2020. The murder of the 46-year-old Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, which was captured on videotape, and the killing of Taylor, ambushed in her apartment by a Louisville Metro Police Department raid in the wee hours on March 13, set off the level of social activism among athletes in this country not seen since Carlos and Smith made their international human rights splash.

NBA and WNBA players wore Black Lives Matter shirts during their respective seasons. NBA coaches wore “Coaches for Racial Justice” buttons during the league’s restart. Game referees marched in protest. NFL teams staged walkouts. Squads from Major League Baseball (MLB), Major League Soccer (MLS) called in games as solidarity support for ridding structural and systemic racism.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka made her own social justice statement when she wore seven masks with the names of seven Black victims of police misconduct or vigilante-style execution. There are more than plenty of examples of the sports universe being in tune with what is happening with the civic engagement opportunities around them.

LeBron James, Allyson Felix, Patrick Mahomes, and Kevin Hart are just a few of the names that are part of More Than a Vote, a voting advocacy group. Seeing these athletes make individual and collective steps in the direction of being more open and bold in taking steps to fight against inequality is a result of fear being rooted out of the equation, Carlos said.

“They had to peel that fear factor back,” Carlos said. “They had to find their courage within themselves. They had to be able to use their minds, probably for the first time to determine as to what is happening is right or wrong. They had to take into account that this war is not for me, but for my offsprings. It’s for my kids, my kids’ kids. I think that many individuals are starting to realize now, just based on the tragedies that’s been going on throughout the nation that I can be a superstar athlete, and everyone acknowledges me while I’m on the field of play, but I can get killed going from the locker room to my car based on the color of my skin.”

“I can be a superstar athlete, but my wife or my daughter or my son, or my brother or my mother or my father, they don’t have Shaquille O’Neal tattooed across their forehead,” Carlos added. “But what they do have tattooed across their forehead is their skin color. And just that in America you can lose your life just merely having that skin color. So many people are starting to realize this now. Black people, in particular, and saying enough is enough. We won’t accept this. We won’t settle for this anymore.”

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