John Carlos: a life of protest

Submitted by Matthew on 11 July, 2012 - 2:58

The black-gloved salute from the podium at the Mexico City 1968 Olympics is one of the most riveting images in the history of protest, surpassing its sporting moment. This autobiography of one of the central protagonists illuminates why John Carlos deserves to be regarded as a hero and a true champion.

John Carlos came third in the 1968 Olympic 200 metre final. His US compatriot Tommie Smith came first and broke the world record. Carlos was just pipped by the Australian Peter Norman. For the medal ceremony, the two Americans wore long black socks and no shoes to protest black poverty. They wore beads around their necks to protest lynchings. Their gloves signified black power, strength and unity.

For their courage, Smith and Carlos were booed out of the stadium and expelled from the Olympic village. Contrary to the myth, they were not stripped of their medals; but they returned to the US reviled and denounced, dubbed “black-skinned storm-troopers” who’d given a “Nazi salute”.

Carlos grew up in Harlem, New York, and learned his politics from Malcolm X. Malcolm “articulated ideas we were thinking but didn’t have the vocabulary to express. He turned frustrations into logic”, Carlos recalls.

A year before the games, he joined Smith and other world-class black athletes such as Lee Evans in forming the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). They originally planned to boycott the 1968 Olympics to expose how the US used black athletes to cover for dire race relations at home.

The OPHR originally had four demands: 1. hire more black coaches; 2. restore Muhammad Ali’s world boxing title; 3. remove Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee; and 4. disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics. Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing the draft for Vietnam. Brundage was an anti-semite and white supremacist, the man who sealed the deal for Hitler to host the 1936 Olympics. South Africa and Rhodesia were apartheid states in which a small white privileged caste ruled over the black majority population.

The OPHR was an incredible campaign. Carlos recalls a meeting in early 1968, where the athletes received support from civil rights leaders and sporting greats such as Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, and Jim Brown. Martin Luther King offered them not only moral support for the boycott, but public backing and a tactical plan. King understood the global significance of the planned boycott. Carlos recalls asking him about why he was going back to Memphis to support the garbage workers’ strike. King replied: “John, I have to go back and stand for those that won’t stand for themselves; and I have to go back for those that can’t stand for themselves.” King would be assassinated days later during that campaign.

The boycott idea lost momentum after King’s death and crucially when South Africa was banned from the Olympics. The OPHR athletes decided to go to Mexico and make their protest individually at the games instead. The story of some of those around the protest is worth telling. Peter Norman, the white athlete with them on the podium, wore an OPHR badge on his track suit in solidarity.

The US Olympic rowing crew, all white men and entirely from Harvard University, put out a statement of support and distributed OPHR badges. Carlos laments in retrospect the failure to involve women athletes in the protest. Yet Wyomia Tyus, who anchored the 4x100m women’s gold medal-winning quartet, still dedicated her quartet’s win to the two men in solidarity.

Bob Beamon, whose massive long jump stayed in the record books for two decades, told Carlos after the protest that he had just screwed up his own life. Yet Beamon still wore long black socks when he collected his medal. George Foreman, winner of boxing gold, waved the stars and stripes after his victory, which was interpreted as a riposte to their protest. Yet years later, Foreman gave Carlos money when he was broke.

Saddest of all was Jesse Owens, whose four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics had answered racism in the heart of Hitler’s behemoth. Owens was sent by Brundage to persuade Carlos and Smith not to protest. He told them that there was no place in the athletic world for politics, as if to deny the very significance of his own past. Owens told them the black fist was “a meaningless symbol; when you open it, you have nothing but fingers”. This was a parody of the old socialist adage attributed to Daniel DeLeon, who roused workers by telling them that alone they were weak fingers but as a collective they were powerful like a clenched fist. Smith and Carlos understood the significance of this gesture.

After the expulsion from the games, Carlos returned to the US and his life unravelled. He had to work as a security guard at a nightclub to earn a living.

One winter he chopped up his own furniture for firewood. He played American football in the NFL and Canada until his legs were smashed so badly he walked with a permanent limp. It wrecked his relationship — his wife Kim committed suicide in 1977. He worked as a park keeper by the docks. It took more than a decade after his protest before he could actually work doing things he really wanted to do.

Some antecedents of the protest emerge from John Carlos’ early life. He was born in 1945 and grew up in Harlem, New York. His father was a veteran of the segregated US army from WWI, who worked as a shoemaker, while his mother was a nurse on the night shift. He had to struggle first and foremost against the grinding poverty and vicious racism that imposed itself on every life-situation. He had to overcome dyslexia. His first love was swimming, but racism and poverty barred him from the pools to train. His early running victories were in heavy trainers and later in old, second-hand running spikes. Yet he protested at school about the food, and in his neighbourhood at the living conditions. Excluded from the 100m sprint in 1968, he still made the Olympic team for the 200m.

Ultimately, John Carlos’ life has been a triumph. He will be remembered long after other Olympic athletes are reduced to simply names in the record books.

The causes for which he fought seem commonplace today. They were not in 1968. They had to be fought for. John Carlos struggled. He overcame. He showed it is possible to change the world. John Carlos is an inspiration.

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