The 1968 Olympics were held in Mexico City and U.S. participant John Carlos was just a 23-year-old sprinter looking to win gold. Carlos did win, taking home a bronze medal. But he also took part in one of the most historic Olympic moments ever. After winning the 200-meter sprint, Carlos and fellow American, Tommy Smith, who won the gold medal, stood on the podiums during the traditional medal presentation ceremony, and raised their black-gloved fists to give the “black power” salute. Both wore black socks and no shoes to represent black poverty. It was a moment in history many will never forget because it spoke to the turbulent times of the 1960s. The Vietnam War was waging. American cities were besieged with racial unrest and poverty. Apartheid in South Africa was ongoing. And months before Carlos’ and Smith’s protest, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, later joined by Bobby Kennedy that year.
The Olympians were seen as heroes by some, but held in contempt by others. After their action, both were kicked off the U.S. team despite taking home medals and breaking track records at the games. They were kicked out of Olympic Village, the place at each year’s games where participants stay.
John Carlos was in Chicago last week to support the efforts of Black People Against Police Torture and its opposition to bringing the 2016 Olympic Games to Chicago. The day of the press conference, Oct. 16, was also the 38th anniversary of his protest.
“If we can’t deal with torture taking place from the people who are suppose to be protecting us in this great city, how can we actually think that the Olympic Games will be a safe haven for us to grow with the city?,” said Carlos at a downtown press conference.
When Carlos and Smith raised their clenched black-gloved fists in 1968, it was the topic of conversation throughout black America. Their black-power salute seem to represent and acknowledge the fight against racism blacks were facing in many major cities. Silver medal winner, Peter Norman of Melbourne, Australia, stood with Carlos and Smith in support.
Norman died earlier this month at age 64 of a heart attack. Carlos, now 61, and Smith, 62, traveled to Australia for the funeral. All three men had remained friends for nearly 40 years. Carlos and Smith considered him their brother, and it was a long lasting friendship because of that historic Olympic day.
Carlos told a group of community activists at a meeting prior to the press conference, “first of all, let me say I’m honored to be here and be a part of your team. You need to expand. You need to get as many people riled up and concerned about this issue (police torture) as we can.”
“I’m with you 1000 percent on this,” he said. “I’m not here to destroy the Olympics…The Olympic games bring a tremendous amount of economics to any city that is the host. Recognition comes to this city and, at the same time, they seem to ignore the problems of the city and make everything look picture perfect. It’s not picture perfect. The Olympic games takes two weeks, so in two weeks of competition time, 90 percent of the time they don’t have Olympic games in ‘posh’ communities. They’re in the ‘hood.’ They were in the hood in Los Angeles. They were in the hood in Atlanta, and it will be in the hood in Chicago if they have it here. My question to the mayor: you’ve backed yourself into a corner – what are you going to do? The world is looking at you. You had an opportunity to do things and you chose not to do it. You have to weigh your decisions against millions of dollars. And it looks like the people here are fired up and very concerned about your absenteeism.”
Carlos talked with the Austin Weekly News about his historical protest and life afterward.
AWN: It had been reported that you and Smith were striped of your medals. Is this true?
Carlos: “They never took the medals – it was propaganda. See, it was like this, they tell the world that they took my medals because 99 percent of the young people who go to the Olympic games go to win that medal – at all cost. So, if you step out of line, we will take your medal.”
AWN: What was the purpose of being barefooted?
Carlos: “To show poverty against black kids. In the 1960s, we still had kids in the south going two and three miles with no shoes. So we went out there with black socks and no shoes to show poverty. The beads I had on my neck: one was for love/peace and the other for lynching.”
AWN: It was said that you had talked with Dr. King 10 days before his death.
Carlos: “It was one of the most significant days in my life. I was invited to attend a meeting in New York at one of the hotels, and when I got in, I recognized some people I knew. After 20 minutes or so Dr. King walks out of the room. It threw me for a loop because Dr. King was like ‘God’s right-hand man’. All I could think of is ‘my mother needs to be a fly on my jacket right now because my mother just idolizes the man so much.’ After the meeting was over, Dr. King asked if I had any questions. I told him I had two and he said ‘what are they?'”
Carlos asked King why he wanted to participate in the ’68 Olympic boycott.
Carlos: “[King] said he felt that it was a very strong imagine across the world to let them know what it’s like to have black people out of the equation. He said as we back away from the Olympic games, it shows that we are missed and, at the same time, we’re not throwing bombs or doing any physical harm to anyone. That impressed me quite a bit. The second thing he said: he had a letter sent to him and it told him they had a bullet with his name on it and he wouldn’t have to wait long for it.”
King was assassinated April 4, 1968 (the Olympics was 6 months away). King would be heading back to Memphis days after his conversation with Carlos.
Carlos: “I asked him, ‘Dr. King, why would you go to Memphis if they’re threatening your life?’ He told me, ‘John, I have to go to Memphis to stand for those who won’t stand up for themselves and stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. And when he said that, he said it so cold and nonchalant. I looked in his eyes and I saw no fear whatsoever, and that was like the powder-keg that I needed to carry me to Mexico City.”
Carlos’ wife took her life in 1977, leaving him to raise his children. Today, Carlos is a counselor at Palm Springs High School in California. Carlos said he hopes to return to his hometown of Harlem, New York in the near future. Smith is retired and lives on his ranch in Atlanta. Both men continue to have a strong binding friendship.