Simone Manuel just became the first Black swimmer from the United States to win a gold medal in the Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. They are both known for raising black-gloved fists while the Starr Spangled Banner played at their victory ceremony. What does John Carlos have in common with Simone Manuel?
John Carlos wrote an autobiography with Dave Zirin titled: The John Carlos Story. In his autobiography Carlos wrote that his first serious interest in athletics was swimming. He had dreams of competing in the Olympics in swimming events. He won the 200 meter New York City freestyle championship. He also spoke to coaches who said that if he worked hard he clearly had the potential to make an Olympic team.
John Carlos’ father Earl ran a shoe repair shop in Harlem, New York. He noticed his son’s interest in swimming and did the research to find out what it would take in order to train to make an Olympic team. These are the words John Carlos used to describe the talk he had with his father.
“Finally this sixty-two-year-old man took his twelve-year-old son by the shoulders and said to me, ‘John, your not going to be able to go to the Olympics for swimming. It’s not about the fact that you’re the best. I know you’re the best. But you need to listen to me, and I will say it again: there is nowhere you can train. And you have to train to go to the Olympics. So where would you train?’”
John Carlos wasn’t satisfied with this answer and asked the question: “Why not Daddy?” His father answered: “The color of your skin.”
“What do you mean the color of my skin?” John asked. His father answered, “Well this is why they haven’t had any black swimmers up until this point to represent America, because they don’t allow the blacks to join the private clubs. And you have to be involved in a club that’s connected to the Olympic people to train.”
In order to fully appreciate who John Carlos was and see the connection with Simone Manuel we need to look at his life story.
Growing up in Harlem Carlos understood that there were many people who didn’t have enough food to eat. There was a rail yard in the area that was a warehouse for food. John and his friends became modern day Robin Hoods. They stole food from the rail yard, and they had the ability to run fast so the police wouldn’t catch them. Then, they distributed the food to those who lived in hunger.
Some people might argue that this was against the law. Well, in the United States of America institutionalized discrimination is a fact of life. Corporations derive huge profits by paying Black people less than their Caucasian counterparts. This is all legal, but in a rational world this discrimination would be considered a crime. So, by breaking the law and giving hungry people food, John Carlos and his friends were, in a way, correcting a grave injustice.
In Harlem, John Carlos became friends with Malcolm X. He remembered that Malcolm walked very fast to his many meetings. Being the athlete he was, Carlos was able to keep up with Malcolm. In those walks Carlos asked Malcolm many questions. Malcolm’s answers gave Carlos a deeper understanding of discrimination, as well as a sense of pride in who he was.
John Carlos had the disease of dyslexia. He was only able to overcome this disease when he was older in life. This is the reason why he didn’t do well in his academic studies. This is why he went to a college in East Texas instead of a school considered to be more prestigious. In East Texas he was exposed to the vicious apartheid-like Jim Crow system.
Before the 1968 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.
Tommie 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.
We might also consider what was happening in the United States in the year 1968. The Civil Rights Movement effectively forced the government to outlaw Jim Crow segregation. They did this with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965.
However, doing away with Jim Crow didn’t change the institutionalized discrimination that Black people experienced all over this country. Police brutality as well as the assassination of Martin Luther King sparked rebellions in cities all throughout the nation.
Faced with these open rebellions, the people who have power in this country began to understand that they needed to do something. So, affirmative action programs gave many Black people opportunities they never had before. The protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos need to be seen in this context.
What does all of this have to do with Simone Manuel?
Simone Manuel was raised in the relatively affluent Sugar Land area of Houston, Texas. Houston happens to be located in the eastern part of the state. She is now attending Stanford University. People who are impressed with the educational system in this country consider Stanford to be one of the elite universities.
After winner her Gold medal, this is what Simone Manuel had to say:
“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality.”
“This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color comes with the territory.”
“It is something I’ve struggled with a lot. Coming into the race I tried to take weight of the black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me.”
“The title black swimmer suggests that I am not supposed to win golds or break records, but that’s not true because I train hard and want to win like everyone else.”
“This medal is not just for me. It is for some of the African Americans who came before me. This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find love and drive to get to this point.”
So, when we look at the lives of John Carlos and Simone Manuel we see some of the changes that have emerged over the years. We also see that the problem of institutionalized discrimination continues to be a fact in this country and around the world.
We might recall that the Mexican government ordered the military to murder hundreds of demonstrators before the 1968 Olympics. In Brazil, the police have murdered thousands of people and the vast majority are Black.
We also might recall the words of Malcolm X who said: “Either we will all be free or no one will be free.”
Malcolm also spoke about the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington where many people sang the words, “We shall overcome.” Malcolm argued that when people go to Washington and sing these words, this is a clear sign that the government has failed.
Today there is a movement called, Black Lives Matter. Saying that “Black lives matter” is a clear statement that there is no real democracy in this country.
As the standard of living continues to deteriorate in this country and around the world, people will create a new movement that demands fundamental change. When we look at the lives of Simone Manuel and John Carlos, I believe we can say that this is exactly where we are heading.