John Carlos tells the story about why he raised his fist while being awarded a medal in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
People from around the world have seen the photograph of Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising their fists with black gloves when they won medals in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. In his book The John Carlos Story, written with Dave Zirin, Carlos explains why he made that stand and why he would do it again.
John Carlos’ early years
The story of John Carlos begins in Harlem, New York. His father, Earl Vanderbilt Carlos, was a veteran of the first world war and worked twelve hour days in his shoe repair shop. His mother Violis Carlos was born in Jamaica, lived in Cuba till the age of 17, and worked on the night shift as a nursing assistant.
John Carlos felt that he was lucky to be raised by both parents. Many of his friends only had one parent. Some of these friends would visit the Carlos home so they might have enough food to eat.
From an early age young John Carlos had a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong. He understood that there were many in Harlem who did not have enough food to eat and he and his crew decided to do something about it.
There was a rail yard near where he lived where large amounts of food were stored. Carlos and his crew would each take containers of food, run from the police, and distribute that food to people who were in need. This gave him the reputation of a modern-day Robin Hood.
John Carlos’ first sport was swimming. He was a natural athlete and won the 200 meter freestyle New York City championship. Carlos had dreams of going to the Olympics in the swimming competition and his father researched what he would have to do to achieve that goal.
Earl Carlos discovered that his son would not be allowed to properly train for the Olympics in swimming because he was Black. When John Carlos began to understand the ramifications of what that would mean, this was one of the changing moments in his life.
Because of his background, John Carlos was inspired by Malcolm X who was well known in Harlem. Young Carlos made it a habit of running with Malcolm X as Malcolm rapidly walked to all of his appointments. By doing this Carlos was able to ask Malcolm questions on many issues and the two became acquaintances.
Because John Carlos had dyslexia, he never had very good academic grades. Although he became an excellent track and field athlete, many of the better schools would not give him a scholarship because of his academic record.
Carlos received a scholarship in East Texas where he learned first hand what the realities of Jim Crow segregation were. He also learned how he was not the only person on his track team who challenged that system.
The 1968 Olympics
After Carlos left East Texas he became involved in the movement to boycott the 1968 Olympics. The reason for this boycott was the fact that Black people in the United States continued to be second-class citizens, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Many celebrities, including Martin Luther King supported the idea of the boycott. However, after the assassination of King many of the athletes abandoned the idea of the boycott. For these reasons John Carlos and others decided that they would compete in the 1968 Olympics.
Before the Mexico City Olympic games, Mexican students protested the fact that resources were being used for the Olympics while poverty and a lack of educational opportunities existed for the people of that nation.
The Mexican government decided to respond to these demonstrations with brutal repression. The armed forces of Mexico murdered hundreds if not thousands of demonstrators. It was in this atmosphere that the Mexico City Olympic games began.
Tommy Smith and John Carlos were the ones who protested the inhumanity of those times by raising their gloved fists in the air as they received medals for winning their event. Their protest showed the world the other side to the history of Black people in the United States. Their attire symbolized the lynchings, the humiliating jobs, and the poverty Black people endured. However, their protest also demonstrated how defiance was the characteristic that gave black people their humanity.
As The Star Spangled Banner played and the gloved fists were raised in the air, there was silence in the Olympic stadium. This silence was followed by boos from spectators who were upset by this protest during the games.
The consequences of their protest
After the Olympics both Smith and Carlos had difficulty finding work. This underscores the fact that freedom of speech, which is supposed to be guaranteed by the constitution, doesn’t exist when people are critical of the powerful forces in this country.
Many people have the impression that John Carlos returned his medal to the International Olympic Committee. In fact, Carlos refused to give back his medal and stated that the IOC could come to Harlem and see how far they would get if they tried to take the medal back.
Carlos was able to eventually find work as a guidance counselor and he never regretted his protest in the Olympics. To the contrary, a statue was built in Smith and Carlos’ honor and ESPN produced a documentary featuring their protest.
When we think about the current 2012 Olympics in London, we might also consider how two young men chose to risk their careers to protest some of the injustices in the world. This is the kind of courage that young people will need in order to take on the powerful interests and make this planet a much better place to live.