An Interview with John Carlos


Thirty-five
years ago this October, John Carlos became one half of perhaps the
most famous (or infamous) moment in Olympic history. After winning
the bronze medal in the 200 meter dash, he and gold medallist Tommie
Smith raised their black glove clad fists in a display of “black
power.” It was a moment that defined the revolutionary spirit
and defiance of a generation. As the 35th anniversary of that moment
was passing with nary a word, I talked to John Carlos about those
turbulent times. 

DAVID
ZIRIN:
Many call that period of the 1960s, the revolt
of the black athlete. Why? 

JOHN
CARLOS: I think Sports Illustrated started that phrase, but
I don’t think of it as the revolt of the black athlete at all.
It was the revolt of black men. Athletics was my occupation. I didn’t
do what I did as an athlete. I raised my voice in protest as a man. 

I
was fortunate enough to grow up in the era of Dr. King, of Paul
Robeson, of baseball players like Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella
who would come into my dad’s shop on 142nd Street and Lennox
in Harlem. I could see how they were treated as black athletes.
I would ask myself, why is this happening? Racism meant that none
of us could truly have our day in the sun. Without education, housing,
and employment, we would lose what I call “family hood.”
If you can’t give your wife or son or daughter what they need
to live, after a while you try to escape who you are. That’s
why people turn to drugs and why our communities have been destroyed.
That’s why there was a revolt. 

When
you woke up that morning, did you know you were going to make your
historic gesture or was it spontaneous? 

It
was in my head the whole year. We first tried to have a boycott
[to get all African American athletes to boycott the Olympics] but
not everyone was down with that plan. A lot of the athletes thought
that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism.
But even if you won the medal it ain’t going to save your momma.
It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give
you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life? I’m
not saying they didn’t have the right to follow their dreams,
but to me the medal was nothing but the carrot on the stick. 

At
the last track meet before the Olympics, we left it that every man
would do his own thing. You had to choose which side of the fence
you were on. You had to say, “I’m for racism or I’m
against racism.” We stated we were going to do something. But
Tommie [Smith] and I didn’t know what we were going to do until
we got into the tunnel [on the way to the 200 meter finals in Mexico
City]. We had gloves, black shirts and beads. We decided in that
tunnel that if we were going to go out on that stand, we were going
to go out barefoot. 

Why
barefoot?
 

We
wanted the world to know that in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee,
South Central Los Angeles, and Chicago people were still walking
back and forth in poverty without even the necessary clothes to
live. We have kids that don’t have shoes even today. It’s
not like the powers that be can’t provide these things. They
can send a spaceship to the moon or send a probe to Mars, yet they
can’t give shoes? They can’t give health care? I’m
just not naïve enough to accept that. 

Why
was it important to you both to wear beads on the medal stand?

The
beads were for those individuals that were lynched or killed that
no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those
thrown off the side of boats in the middle passage. All that was
in my mind. We didn’t come up there with any bombs. We were
trying to wake the country up and wake the world up too. 

How
did your life change when you took that step onto the podium?

My
life changed prior to the podium, I used to break into freight trains
by Yankee Stadium when I was young. Then I changed when I realized
I was a force in track and field. I realized I didn’t have
to break into freight trains. I wanted to wake up the people who
work and run the trains so they can seize what they deserve. It’s
like these supermarkets in Southern California that are on strike.
They always have extra milk and they throw it in the river or dump
the garbage even though there are people without milk. They say
we can’t give it to you so we would rather throw it away. Something
is very wrong. Realizing that changed me long before 1968. 

What
kind of harassment did you face back home?

I
was with Dr. King ten days before he died. He told me he was sent
a bullet in the mail with his name on it. I remember looking in
his eyes to see if there was any fear and there was none. He didn’t
have any fear. He had love and that in itself changed my life in
terms how I would go into battle. I would never have fear for my
opponent, but love for the people I was fighting for. That’s
why if you look at the picture [of the raised fist], Tommie has
his jacket zipped up and [Australian silver medalist] Peter Norman
has his jacket zipped up, but mine was open. 

I
was representing shift workers, blue-collar people, and the underdogs.
That’s why my shirt was open. Those are the people whose contributions
to society are so important, but don’t get recognized. 

What
kind of support did you receive when you came home?

There
was pride, but only from the less fortunate. What could they do
but show their pride? But we had black businesspeople, we had black
political caucuses, and they never embraced Tommie Smith or John
Carlos. When my wife took her life in 1977, they never said, let
me help. 

Did
being an outcast play a role in your wife taking her life?

It
played a huge role. We were under tremendous economic stress. I
took any job I could find. I wasn’t too proud. Menial jobs,
security jobs, gardener, caretaker, whatever I could do to try to
make ends meet. We had four children, and some nights I would have
to chop up our furniture and put it into the fireplace just to stay
warm. I was the bad guy, the two headed dragon spitting fire. It
meant we were alone. 

Many
people say athletes should just play and not be heard. What do you
say to that?

Those
people should put all their millions of dollars together and make
a factory that builds athlete-robots. Athletes are human beings.
We have feelings too. How can you ask someone to live in the world,
to exist in the world, and not have something to say about injustice? 

What
message do you have to the new generation of athletes hitting the
world stage?

First
of all athletes black/red/ brown/yellow and white need to do some
research on their history; their own personal family. They need
to find out how many people in their family were maimed in a war.
They need to find out how hard their ancestors had to work. They
need to uncloud their minds with the materialism and the money and
study their history. And then they need to speak up. You got to
step up to society when it’s letting all its people down. 

As
you look at the world today, do you think athletes and all people
still need to speak out and take a stand?

Yes,
because so much is the same as it was in 1968, especially in terms
of race relations. I think things are just more cosmetically disguised.
Look at Mississippi or Alabama. It hasn’t changed from back
in the day. Look at the city of Memphis and you still see blight
up and down. You can still see the despair and the dope. Look at
the police rolling up and putting 29 bullets in a person in the
hallway or sticking a plunger up a man’s rectum or Texas where
they dragged that man by the neck from the bumper of a truck. How
is that not just the same as a lynching? 

Do
you feel like you are being embraced now after all these years? 

I
don’t feel embraced, I feel like a survivor, like I survived
cancer. It’s like if you are sick and no one wants to be around
you; when you’re well, everyone who thought you would go down
for good doesn’t even want to make eye contact. It was almost
like we were on a deserted island. That’s where Tommie Smith
and John Carlos were. But we survived.


Dave Zirin is
the editor of
Prince George’s Post , a newspaper
of record in Prince George’s County, Maryland. He also writes
a sports column (www.edgeof sports.com). Zirin’s articles have
appeared on ZNET and Counterpunch.