One of the defining images of the 1968 Olympics is US sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving what became known as a black power salute during the playing of the US national anthem. In the build up to the London 2012 Olympics John Carlos has just completed a short speaking tour of the UK promoting his book The John Carlos Story.
The name John Carlos may not be a familiar one but the image of him and Tommie Smith standing with raised arms and clenched fists after receiving their medals at the 1968 Olympics definitely is (a photograph can be seen here). Carlos had won a bronze medal in the 200 metres and Smith a gold, both were confident of winning medals and before the semi-finals of their event they decided to make a protest at the medal ceremony.
Neither wore shoes during the ceremony but wore black socks to represent black poverty and black gloves to represent strength and unity. Carlos kept his jacket unzipped to remember the working class people of Harlem – black and white – who struggled to earn a living he also wore beads around his neck to remember the history of lynching and slaves thrown over the sides of ships as they were taken from Africa to America. Smith wore a black scarf to represent black pride. During the national anthem they both raised their fists in the air. Often described as a black power salute Smith wrote in his autobiography Silent Gesture that it was a "human rights salute" which was done to "humbly reflect the strength of the human spirit". They both wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges as did second placed Peter Norman of Australia who fully supported Carlos and Smith in their protest, Norman himself was an opponent of Australia's white Australia Policy which restricted non-white immigration to Australia.
Carlos was in Harlem in 1945 and his first sporting ambition had been to be the first black man to represent the US at the olympics as a swimmer but his father told him that to do that he would have to join a private club and blacks could not join any of those clubs. At a nearby swimming pool in a white neighbourhood white parents told their children to get out of the pool when blacks jumped in "like the way people would run if there was a dead animal or something floating in the water" says Carlos.
With the end of his swimming ambitions he was beginning to get a sense of the injustice suffered by blacks in America, he became heavily influenced by Malcolm X and listened to him speaking whenever he could and even followed him down the street firing questions at him. He was also influenced by – of all things – The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and he began following Robin Hoods example of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, Carlos and his friends would break into freight trains and steal boxes of food and then hand them out to his local community, he claims he could run away from the night guards and police carrying two boxes weighing 25lbs each. Whilst at school he began to take part in street level protests, he even at one point organised a boycott of the school cafeteria in protest at the standard of food. The boycott lasted two weeks and only ended when Carlos walked into the principals office and threatened to tell the New York Times and Daily Post about the boycott.
The police became aware that Carlos was involved in the thefts from freight trains and he was warned that if he wasn't careful he was going to end up in jail, they had also noticed how fast Carlos was and it was through them that he got the chance to train at the New York Pioneer Club one of the best track & field clubs in New York.
Carlos gained a place at East Texas State University and whilst in Texas he was not John Carlos anymore he became "boy" or "son" or "that negro fella". He was told not to have a social life with anyone but black people and never to talk to a white woman if no one else was around, a black student told him "The way things are in East Texas is simply the way things are". After a year at East Texas Carlos went to San Jose University where he joined up with Tommie Smith and another American sprinter Lee Evans, their presence at San Jose earned the university the nicknamed 'speed city'.
Along with a number of other athletes John Carlos was a member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) the aim of the OPHR was to bring to an end racial segregation in the US and elsewhere (such as South Africa and Rhodesia) and to campaign against racism in sports. The OPHR was considering a boycott of the 1968 Mexico Olympics and although competing in the Olympics had been Carlos ambition since he was young he said he "would be proud to give it up for the greater good" after his childhood experiences and the racism he suffered at East Texas "how could I represent a country that had treated me and mine so terribly" in his autobiography he writes "I was truly ashamed of my country". The boycott failed to materialise so John Carlos and Tommie Smith made their silent gesture on the medal podium.
The reaction was immediate; as the anthem played and Carlos and Smith stood with raised arms and clenched fists boos rang out around the stadium, when the anthem ended the booing became louder. As they walked out of the arena people began throwing missiles and shouting racist abuse
"Niggers need to go back to Africa……..I can't believe this is how you niggers treat us after we let you run in our games."
The International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage was furious, he said the protest had been a political action not suitable for the olympic games, (Avery Brundagewas known to be a racist and anti-semite who had awarded the 1936 olympics to Germany and had made no objection to Nazi salutes at those games) he demanded that Carlos and Smith be expelled from the Olympics, the US Olympic committee initially refused but gave in when Brundage threatened to expel the entire US team.
US newspapers couldn't hide their anger, The Los Angeles Times said they had engaged in a "Nazi-like salute", Time magazine showed the five ring olympic logo but replaced the Olympic motto "Faster, Higher, Stronger" with "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier" and said the gesture was "ugly". Brent Musberger, a writer at the now defunct Chicago American newspaper, compared Carlos and Smith as to Nazis when he said they were "black-skinned storm troopers"
Calos writes that:
"The editorial boards of the major papers spoke in unison that we were an embarrassment. We were un-American. We disgraced the country my father was shot at fighting for [Carlos father had fought in the first world war]………….no major media gave us the opportunity to speak our minds and articulate exactly why we did what we did. Everything was framed by what they wanted people to think about us. It was about as objective and unbiased as a press release from the Pentagon"
However while much of the US media and political & sporting establishment was against them many saw Carlos and Smiths action as a demand for more equality and justice. 1968 had been a turbulent year, Martin Luther King had been assassinated, as had Democratic presidential candidate and civil rights activist Robert F Kennedy, there was growing opposition to the Vietnam war in America and worldwide, (the Democratic party convention had been disrupted when police attacked anti-war protestors) In western Europe people were rising up against capitalism and the established order and even in eastern Europe people in Yugoslavia, Poland and Czechoslovakia were protesting against their leaders. In Mexico City itself just ten days before the start of the olympics dozens of students and activists had been shot dead as they demanded political reforms. The last thing leaders of country's with a restless population needed was a couple of black guys in open rebellion on the world stage. Carlos wrtes that
"When we got back to the Olympic village, there were athletes, to my shock, who were incredibly supportive……they fully felt and understood why it was necessary for us to do what we did. Black, white, male, female no matter the country, you can't find one example of anyone on that team throwing us under the bus"
The US women's 4x100m relay team dedicated their gold medals to Carlos and Smith, the US rowing eights team (all white and all Harvard educated) issued a statement saying:
"We – as individuals – have been concerned about the place of the black man in American society in their struggle for equal rights. As members of the US Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral commitment to support our black team mates in their efforts to dramatise the injustices and inequities which permeate our society."
However Carlos adds:
"while they…[members of the US team]…never walked away from us, very few walked closely to us either……most of the athletes acted as if they stood to close to us, they would get shit on their suits"
When Carlos arrived arrived back in Harlem his neighbours had hung a banner outside his house reading "Welcome Home John Carlos, Our Hero"
Before they left Mexico City Carlos realised that all international newspapers and magazines had been removed from the Olympic Village, he believes this was because the IOC did not want athletes to see what the worldwide media was saying about their action and that outside America it may get a sympathetic reaction.
On his return Carlos was ostracised by US sporting authorities, he began receiving death threats. His wife Kim was constantly hounded by the press and someone was sending pictures of her husband with other women claiming he had been unfaithful – Carlos suspects it was the FBI – none of it was true. Their children were told their dad was a 'traitor'. Carlos found work hard to come by, he spent a year in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and then played in Montreal and Toronto in the Canadian Football League but by 1972 his track and football career were over. His application to become a sprint trainer for the US Olympic team was rejected. Life was a struggle and the family had to survive on the income of Kim who worked as a secretary. He suffered from depression (although he was encouraged after receiving supportive telegram from Ted Kennedy, brother of Robert Kennedy), his marriage collapsed and then in 1977 Kim committed suicide. Carlos knew he could cope with the furore that would surround him after 1968 but he regrets the impact it had on his family and and how it contributed to his divorce and suicide of his first wife.
By the late 1970's Carlos was working for a foundation that found work for young people on low-incomes or from disadvantaged backgrounds, although he says that "people in and around my life still treated me like I had leprosy". During the build up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics he contacted the organising committee wanting reassurance that young people and the local are would reap benefits form the games. This enquiry eventually led him to a job with the US Olympic committee and he even got he chance to carry the Olympic flame. The job with the USOC only lasted until the end of the 1984 games and for a while afterwards Carlos again found it hard to find a job, but things where looking up. He met Charlene Norwood who would later become his second wife and in 1985 the family moved to Palm Springs California where he became athletics (track & field) coach and school counsellor at Palm Springs High School positions he still holds today. Carlos says
"Palm Springs was a blessing because I knew I needed to work with kids and forget about being John Carlos, the Olympian, or John Carlos, the pariah, and just try to make a difference…..I was happy in Palm Springs being anonymous"
Although he was approached for interviews he only time he would speak with any media was when someone was "pulling a Smith/Carlos" such as when American basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the playing of the US national anthem The Star Spangled Banner, Abdul-Rauf said the US flag was a symbol of oppression or when Toni Smith a basketball player at Manhattanville College refused to face the US flag before games as it represents the murder of her ancestors (Smith is of Cherokee descent) and as a protest against the Iraq war.
Carlos began to come out of his shell in 2005 when students at San Jose university raised enough money to build a statue of Carlos and Smith in the grounds of the university. The statue is 22ft tall and the place where Peter Norman should stand on the rostrum has been left vacant so people can stand next to Smith and Carlos and "take a stand", Norman approved of the statue and travelled from Australia for the unveiling. The university also awarded the pair honorary doctorate degrees. However a year later Carlos travelled to Australia to attend the funeral of his "brother from another mother" when Peter Norman died of a heart attack, Smith also attended and both were pallbearers for Norman's coffin. In 2007 Carlos and Smith were recognised at the annual Trumpet awards, which recognise African American achievement and in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, Carlos was a torch bearer for the Human rights torch which was organised to raise awareness of China's human rights record and ran parallel with the 2008 Olympic flame. Later that year Carlos and Smith were awarded the Arthur Ashe award for courage.
No longer a pariah Carlos remains active and spoke to the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street in 2011 saying:
“I am here for you. Why? Because I am you. We’re here forty-three years later because there’s a fight still to be won. This day is not for us but for our children to come.”
Speaking on MSNBC he said:
"I definitely see the connection between then and now. Back then we were fighting the racial struggle. Now it’s broader than that because this economy is affecting all of us. The fat cats have had their day. It’s past time for the mice to get together.”
In his book he writes
"I still feel the old impulses, the old compulsions, to stand up and be heard, no matter the cost, no matter the price"
When he was asked recently about 1968 he said:
"What I did was necessary, based on the vision that God gave me. It was something that I was born into this world to do.”
The last word will go to Margaret lambert. Margaret Lambert was a Jewish high jumper. Born in Germany she set a German high jump record in 1931 but was later expelled from her athletics club for being Jewish. Her parents sent her to England where in 1934 she became British high jump champion. Despite this the German authorities wanted her to take part in the German trials to show that Germany was an open and tolerant country even though she had no chance of making the Olympics because jews were banned from the German team. Lambert took part in the trials – members of her family who remained in Germany had been threatened with reprisals if she didn't compete. Lambert says of Carlos and Smith:
"When I saw those two guys with their fists up on the victory stand, it made my heart jump. It was beautiful."
Peter Norman also suffered, he was vilified on his return to Australia and Australian Olympic authorities banned him for 2 years, he was not selected for the 1972 Olympics despite making achieving the qualifying time (Australia did not send any male sprinters to the 1972 games.) He later suffered form depression and drank heavily. The organisers of the Sydney 2000 games did not invite Norman to be involved in any way with the 2000 Olympics, he only became involved when the American team invited him after they heard the Australians had not asked him.
Unless stated or linked all quotes are from The John Carlos Story