Runner John Carlos: No Regrets On Olympic Salute

Dec 7, 2011
Originally published on December 12, 2011 2:40 pm

John Carlos is an American hero.

Though he never fought in any wars or received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, he served his country admirably. This is by no means intended to discount or disrespect the sacrifices made by our nation's men and women in uniform, especially today, on the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks.

But Carlos, a sprinter who represented the United States in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, is a hero for the stand he took at the games. There he raised his fist to protest mistreatment of blacks in America. Undoubtedly, he was unaware of the amount of torment and isolation he would face upon returning home.

There are few moments where sports and politics intertwine. Sports is often seen as an escape from whatever conflict, injustice or social hardship is taking place outside the boundaries of athletic competition. That's what made the infamous salute such a powerful image.

After the 200-meter dash, John Carlos and his teammate Tommie Smith, who won the bronze and gold medals, respectively, stood on the podium. Their heads were tilted downward and they were wearing black gloves. Each thrust a single fist in the air while the "Star Spangled Banner" played.

"I didn't go there for the medal, I went there for the statement," said John Carlos on NPR's Tell Me More. Carlos is co-author of the memoir The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World.

The gesture was intended to be noble, not negative. It was meant to bring attention to the injustices occurring in the United States, where the civil rights movement was in full swing. The U.S. was in the midst of racial turmoil — a war against a separate and unequal society.

"It was like a soda bottle that had been shook too much and when they raised their fist in the air. It was like someone popped the top on that," said Dave Zirin, who wrote the book with Carlos.

John Carlos paid a steep price for his statement. Both Carlos and Smith were ostracized — they couldn't find work.

The black-gloved gesture was compared to a "Nazi-like salute," Zirin said.

Carlos was under constant surveillance by the FBI. He received countless threats on his life and his home. The pressure and the abandonment by society became too much for his first wife, Kim, who took her own life.

"I reflect when they ask me 'Would I do it again?' You know, my reply to that is that as much as I love my wife, she'd have to take her life again, and again, and again. Because I cannot sacrifice society for one individual's life — mine nor hers," Carlos said.

John Carlos still possesses that same fiery and courageous spirit that challenged the status quo in 1968.

"All I want is to be recognized as being, is John Carlos, the son of Earl Carlos. No more, no less."

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, our series about people living in immigration limbo continues with a love story. Both people came here separately seeking a new life away from then communist Poland. They met, fell in love, married and started a family, but one found a path to legal status while the other did not. And then a deportation order tore their family apart. Their story is told in the new documentary "Tony and Janina's American Wedding." We'll tell you about it in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to recall one of those iconic images that, even today, has the power to inspire and disturb. The U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who placed first and third respectively in a 200 meter dash in the 1968 Olympics, took to the podium during the medal ceremony in Mexico City. Both men, heads tilted downward, wearing black gloves, thrust a fist in the air while the "Star Spangled Banner" played. They also wore beads and were barefoot.

They intended their gesture to call attention to poverty, violence and injustice suffered by African-Americans back home in the U.S. The two men knew they would pay a price for their protest. They had no idea how high that price would be.

John Carlos wanted to talk about why he and Tommie Smith chose this course back in 1968, but as he details in a new book, there was fury directed at the two men, but little interest in their side of the story. So he is telling it now in a new book titled "The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World." It was co-written with Dave Zirin, who is sports editor at The Nation magazine. He's also a frequent guest on this program.

And they are both with us now. Welcome to you both.

JOHN CARLOS: Honored to be here.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah. It's great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: John Carlos, you have to know that, to this day, there are college students with a poster of you and Tommie Smith on their walls, and to this day, there are young people emulating the gesture. I was at a college football game just last month were at least half the members of both teams raised their fists and bowed their heads emulating your gesture during the playing of the national anthem.

So that makes me wonder, was it something that you had planned going in?

CARLOS: Well, we actually planned to do the boycott and when the boycott was called off, we felt that we needed to make a statement to let them know that things are still not right and we need to make it right. So, actually, 20 minutes before we actually did the final race, Tommie and I got together and decided that we wanted to do something and we decided what artifacts we wanted to bring and the rest is history.

MARTIN: Dave, pick up the story from there. A number of black athletes were contemplating boycotting the games. Tell us about it.

ZIRIN: Yes. There was a movement taking place among African-American athletes under the umbrella of something called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. They wanted to call attention to poverty and injustice and racism back home. As they said in their founding statement, why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?

Now, they had four basic demands. One of the demands was to dis-invite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympic Games because they were apartheid countries. One was to hire more African-American head coaches. One was to get Avery Brundage, the head of the International Olympic Committee who, to be frank about it, was racist, was anti-Semitic.

And one – and this is the one that puts chills on my arm - one was to restore Muhammad Ali's boxing title because it had been stripped because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. They called Ali the warrior saint of the black athletes' revolt.

Now, the other thing that's interesting, though, is that South Africa and Rhodesia were dis-invited from those games after they started this movement and that was one of the things that took the wind out of the sails of the boycott, but the other thing, as John describes in the book, is that far too many of the athletes were just so obsessed with getting that medal that the thought of sacrificing it for a larger point wasn't something people could get their heads around.

MARTIN: John Carlos, all athletes train and competitive sports, at that level, does really sort of take over your life. You had those conversations with some of your teammates and fellow athletes. And what did they say?

CARLOS: Many of them thought that they'd trained all their lives. Others said, well, I made a promise to my family that I would win a medal. And our game was to try and make them understand, man, you have 15 minutes in the sun. We're trying to do something that will change society for your kids and your grandkids, something that will be everlasting.

But many of those individuals couldn't get past the carriage. Just the theory that I'm going to win a gold medal. I'm going to win a bronze medal.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of that 15 minutes in the sun, we actually found sound of the race. In this clip, the announcer refers to Peter Norman of Australia and you, along with Tommie Smith. I think it's important to note, Tommie Smith was a little injured. Was he not?

ZIRIN: Yes. He had had a groin injury in advance of the race. Yeah.

MARTIN: He had a groin injury in advance of the race. Here it is.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the hottest 200 meter field ever assembled at the Olympic Games. The second attempt now to get them away. Peter Norman did get a good start, I thought. Smith is doing well and his leg seems to be standing up okay. Look at Carlos go in the center of the field and (unintelligible) is not beaten by any means. Peter Norman running beautifully and he's got the - heading into the 100 meters. Peter Norman is flying on the outside. Here comes Eigenherr of West Germany. He's a threat. So, too, is the Trinidadian, Roberts. In the center of the field is Tommie Smith running through both and Peter Norman runs up (unintelligible). Smith (unintelligible). He beat John Carlos and Peter Norman could have run a second place.

MARTIN: Your face is doing something really funny while you're listening to this. What's going through your mind?

CARLOS: Well, you know, I'm sitting back saying, the man made a comment that he couldn't pull it that badly. It wasn't pulled at all. It was part of psychology's trend, you know, foster concern that maybe my fellow athlete is injured.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. Tricky.

ZIRIN: Gamesmanship.

MARTIN: Gamesmanship.

CARLOS: I've never seen anyone run and break world records with a groin muscle pull.


ZIRIN: I'll tell you, the most amazing thing about that race - and I encourage people to go to YouTube and actually watch it because let's remember, John Carlos and Tommie Smith came up with this plan for the medal stand, but then there's the little matter of making sure you're actually on the medal stands. So, in the race, John Carlos is leading for most of the race, but he's constantly looking over his left shoulder to make sure Tommie is coming.

And anybody who's run track knows you don't swivel your head and John is constantly swiveling his head to make sure that they're paced in such a way that they can both be on the stand. And that, to me, is one of the great feats of athletic pyrotechnics in history.

MARTIN: So do you think, in a way, that you gave up second to make sure that you and Tommie were together?

CARLOS: I didn't go there for the medal. I went there for the statement.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos, a sprinter. He won third place in the 200 meter dash during the 1968 games in Mexico City. During the medal ceremony, he and first place winner, Tommie Smith, gained international attention for their gesture from the podium, raising their black gloved fists in the air. They also were barefoot and wore beads.

And he's the author of the new memoir "The John Carlos Story," along with Dave Zirin. He's a sports editor for The Nation magazine and he's the coauthor of the book.

You know, it was interesting to hear in the book that the word had apparently gotten out that the black athletes were trying to use the event to try to draw attention to the issues that were of concern to them. And apparently, Avery Brundage anticipated this and sent over another track legend to try to persuade the athletes not to make any waves. That was Jesse Owens, the Olympian who won four gold medals at the 1936 games in Berlin. What was that like?

CARLOS: I think Jesse Owens felt that we needed more time. They said, just give us time. Things will change. And my understanding - telling Jesse Owens at that particular time - was time has run out. We have no more time. Now is the time that we have to do it. Well, why do you have to do it in the Olympics? Because the Olympics is worldwide. It's universal, so where else can we do it other than here to make a statement about the ills of society?

MARTIN: Do you have any sympathy for the notion that you should just let your athleticism speak for itself in the same way that Jesse Owens did, which is his winning those gold medals was a rebuke to the notions of white superiority that Hitler was promulgating? Any sympathy for that?

CARLOS: Well, when (unintelligible) you should let your athleticism speak for itself, when Jesse Owens came home from the Olympics, he had to run against horses. I guess he was letting his athleticism speak for itself.

MARTIN: And you're saying he had to run against horses because he couldn't get a job?

CARLOS: Absolutely. Larry James. When he came home from the games, he had to run against horses. That's insane to think that we had to prove to society in order for us to get a meal for our kids that we would run against a four-legged animal just to put on a show or a spectacle in that sort. No. That was not the idea that John Carlos had to represent himself, his race, to his kids and his grandkids.

MARTIN: John Carlos, there were a number of people who stood with you and there were people who didn't. And some of the people you expected to did not, but there was some unexpected support. One of those was Peter Norman, who came in second in the 200 meters, was from Australia. He didn't raise his fist, but he did show support in another way. Dave, you want to tell us about that? And, also, what happened to him?

ZIRIN: Oh, absolutely. What Peter did was he made the decision to wear a patch on that medal stand that said Olympic Project for Human Rights, because he said he wanted history to record that he stood with them at this moment. Peter had been raised by his parents through working in the Salvation Army. Peter stood for aboriginal rights in Australia. So when he went back home, though, to Australia, I mean, he was as much of a fire-breathing dragon as John Carlos and Tommie Smith were.

But the greatest Peter Norman moment has to do with the statues at San Jose State. They're 25 foot statues there. Would you like to tell that story, John? Please do.

CARLOS: I'd love to tell that story. So when I went to San Jose and heard that weren't putting Peter's statue up and I went to the student body. Why aren't you guys putting Peter's statue up? And they said, well, you know, Mr. Carlos, we raised the money for this. The students did. And Mr. Norman didn't go to school at San Jose State. I said, yeah. But it's not about the school. It's not about what happened at San Jose State. It's about what happened in society. So if you're not going to put Mr. Norman's statue there, I don't want my statue there. And they said, well, John, Peter doesn't want it there. So then I went from them to the president's office. I said we need to make a call. Call Australia. Call Peter's house.

Just by the grace of God, he picks up the phone. I said, Peter, what is this I understand about you don't want your statue here? What are you, ashamed of us? You walking away from me? He said, heck, no. I'm not backing away from you. He said, John, I didn't do what you and Tommie did. I supported what you and Tommie did. He said, I thought it would be apropos for me to step back and not have my statue there. For anyone that ever comes to San Jose State and supported you, they can stand in my spot and take a picture.

ZIRIN: That's now a thing at San Jose State, too. Like, if there's a speak-out on campus, you stand in the Peter Norman spot on the statue and speak.

MARTIN: Tell me about the moment when you left the medal stand.

CARLOS: From the moment the silence was over, when they started singing the national anthem when I say silence, they were in a state of shock, so it was a lull where it was just quiet. And then, all of a sudden, they started to sing the national anthem and they didn't sing the national anthem as they would normally do, they screamed the national anthem as though they wanted to shove it down our throats.

MARTIN: Did anybody try to talk to you about it, to get your point of view about it?

CARLOS: No, they never did. They came and they did documentaries, you know, to get the image.

MARTIN: That was years later.

CARLOS: That kind of thing. Oh, many years later.

MARTIN: That was years later, but I'm saying, at the time...

CARLOS: None whatsoever.

MARTIN: Nobody ever said, why?

CARLOS: None whatsoever. All they did was throw bullets and bombs.

MARTIN: Well, you don't mean literally throw bullets and bombs?

CARLOS: No. When I say, throw bullets and bombs, you know, it's a bullet when they tell you that you can't feed your family. It's a bomb when they have your wife to drive herself to suicide. You know, it's a bomb when your kids go to school and they're being abused and oppressed because you are their father.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking about this, though. You feel that the stress of the situation is what led to your wife's death, led to her taking her own life.

CARLOS: I think the stress of the situation and I think the fact that they broke up our marriage - I think those two were the main factors in her taking her life.

MARTIN: I'm very sorry about your loss.

CARLOS: I'm truly sorry and I think that's something that will be with me in my heart for the rest of my life. But yet, and still, you know, when people ask me and say, man, would you do it again? And I sit back and I reflect when they ask me, would I do it again? You know, my reply to that is, much as I loved my wife, she'd had to take her life again and again and again. And my life is on the line the same way because I cannot sacrifice society for one individual's life, mine nor hers.

MARTIN: There was a rumor that you had been stripped of your medals. That's not true?

CARLOS: No. That was propaganda that the International and the National Olympic Committee put on for 40 some odd years, basically to intimidate those that'd been hypnotized over the years to go for the carrot. If you want this carrot and you step out of the circle, you will never have that carrot because we will take it back.

MARTIN: Dave, pick up the story from there, you know, if you would.

ZIRIN: Sure.

MARTIN: We mentioned at the beginning that Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos did pay a price for their activism. Just to clarify those myths, they did not get your medals. They did not kick you out. You weren't staying there, anyway. But there were repercussions, especially economic ones. Talk about that.

ZIRIN: They were ordered to leave Mexico City, but there was no sort of authority to actually order them to leave. Their visa allowed them to stay another year if they wanted to, so that was all for show the same way it was for show to be able to say, oh, we took their medals away. I mean, it's a way to create this kind of aura of intimidation.

I mean, two very interesting things happened right afterwards. First of all, you had a real shift of consciousness among the very African-American athletes who weren't willing to stand with the boycott and were unsure about what they were doing. Once the overreaction took place of saying we stripped their medals. We kicked them out. All of a sudden, now you have, in Olympic Village, a banner being hung that says John Carlos and Tommie Smith are our heroes. That was a very positive thing that happened at the grassroots level.

The problem was that, back in the States - and this is hard for people, I think, in these days of the Internet, to get their heads around - is that there were very few media opinion-makers who had tremendous amounts of power. And the consensus by all of them, 100 percent - and I looked at all the archives - was very ugly. I mean, to have the Los Angeles Times say that John Carlos engaged in a Nazi-like salute is something that's profound.

MARTIN: And then there was the whole question of employment. You know, after the Olympics, what happened there?

ZIRIN: Or not employment. I mean, just the idea of being able to get a job was very difficult. I mean, John tried to hook on to play in the National Football League because, when you can run 100 yards in under nine seconds the NFL will come a calling, but what John got first trouble doing that was a knee blown in about 10 different directions and he still limps to this day.

But, overall, you're talking about John Carlos and Tommie Smith who, literally not being able to feed their families, and simultaneously with that, throughout most of the '70s, having a level of FBI surveillance, so much so that at one point there's a story in the book about John just saying to an FBI agent why don't you just come in for a cup of coffee?

MARTIN: Dave, concluding facts from you. Obviously, people will remember the horrible tragedy at the Munich Olympics where the Israeli team was slaughtered, which certainly was intended as a political gesture. But we're talking about kind of a nonviolent protest meant to call attention to an issue, you know, by an Olympic athlete at the Olympic Games.

Has there ever been another event like this?

ZIRIN: No. And I would argue there hasn't been a moment like this in the history of sports and it has to do with the combination of the moment, the movement and the year. You're talking 1968. You're talking King's assassination, Robert Kennedy's assassination, movement against the war in Vietnam, and right before the games itself, the slaughter of hundreds of students in Mexico City. All of this tension and stress was existing at the time. It was like a soda bottle that had been shook too much, and when they raised their fists in the air, it was like someone popped the top on that and it all just started coming out at that point.

So they are an image that crystallizes an era and you would have to have an era with an equal amount of social tumult to get an image that has anything close to that resonance.

MARTIN: What do you think the legacy of John Carlos is?

ZIRIN: The legacy is you stand up for what you think is right, even if everybody is standing against you and telling you it's wrong. And it's like John says himself. He says it's the fish that swims upstream that gets the prize.

MARTIN: So, Mr. Carlos, I have to give you the last word. What would you like your legacy to be?

CARLOS: You know, I've always been asked, you know, what would you like put on your tombstone?

MARTIN: Well, that's a bit much. I wasn't going to ask you. I'm asking...

CARLOS: No, no. People ask, you know, where are we going? You know, and all I'd like to be recognized is being John Carlos, the son of Earl Carlos, no more, no less. I'm no more or no better than anybody out there. I just had an opportunity in life to prepare myself for that particular day, and when I got there, I'm just thanking God that I had the courage, the insight and the wisdom to say it's not my life for (unintelligible) on the stand, but it's for the life of my kids and my grandkids and those that come after.

MARTIN: John Carlos is a political activist, a member of the 1968 U.S. Olympic track team. He won the bronze medal in the 200 meter dash.

Dave Zirin is sports editor at The Nation, a frequent guest in our weekly Friday segment, the Barbershop. They are coauthors of "The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World." And they were both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

John Carlos, Dave Zirin, thank you both so much for joining us.

CARLOS: Thank you, Miss. The pleasure is mine.

ZIRIN: It's a privilege. Yes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.