Sometimes it’s hard to remember, but the Olympic protest of Tommie Smith and Palm Springs’ John Carlos happened in October, a month you don’t associate with the Summer Olympics. But it was that day when Smith and Carlos took a stand against racial inequity in this country. Their protest, raised fists in black gloves, on the medal stand during the awards ceremony following the 200 meters on Oct. 16, 1968. Smith won the gold and Carlos the bronze. It’s a powerful image that has become iconic.
Both Smith and Carlos were banned from the Olympic Village following their protest. Returning to America, Carlos and his family received death threats. Carlos remained active and was part of the committee that put on the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The following year, Carlos moved to Palm Springs, where he has been a councilor at Palm Springs High School.
Carlos is very protective of his story. While I interviewed him in 2008, NBC had called him to do an interview during the Olympics to commorate the 40th anniversary. Carlos politely declined. Rarely does Carlos appear on camera, but he did two documentaries for ESPN. Carlos is trying to protect and preserve that story.
Sometimes that has Carlos butting heads. One of the guys Carlos has butted heads with is Smith. In fact, by 2008 their bickering appeared in stories. But Carlos and Smith know what their legacy means, so when they received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, they stood united. And after Barack Obama was elected president, both Smith and Carlos were together and shared a huge with their wives.
Below is a story I wrote on Carlos in 2008.
A powerful life
40 years ago, John Carlos changed lives with his statement at the Olympics. Today, he changes lives as a counselor at Palm Springs High School.
By Leighton Ginn
The Desert Sun
Growing up, John Carlos never quite understood the meaning of a childhood dream.
It was a dream that later turned prophetic for the Olympic sprinter and Palm Springs resident.
“I would have this vision that showed me as a little kid in a stadium on a box or a podium,” said Carlos, 62. “It never showed me what I did, but obviously I did something. And people were hooraying, chanting and yippee-ki-yaying. And in a split second, it all turned to anger, venom and bitterness.”
While at dinner with his family one night, Carlos’ father noticed his son was troubled and asked what was wrong.
“I told him. I remember his comment was, ‘Well Johnny, we don’t know what God has in store for you, but it looks like he has something special for you. We’re just going to have to wait and see what it is,’” Carlos said.
About 15 years later, Carlos realized the meaning of his dream as he stood on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Carlos had just won the bronze medal in the 200-meter dash, and fellow American Tommie Smith won the gold.
As Carlos and Smith stood on the winners’ podium in socks and black gloves, they lowered their heads when the national anthem played. Each raised a fist in protest of the treatment of African Americans in the United States.
The image of Smith and Carlos became an iconic symbol of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
For many at the time, the image infuriated them, leading to death threats against Carlos, Smith and Dr. Harry Edwards, who helped organize the demonstration. Smith and Carlos were thrown out of the Olympic village.
Among the thoughts that went through Carlos’ mind at the time was that vision he had as a child.
“‘Oh man, this is what this vision was about 15 years earlier,’” Carlos said. “Here I am in Mexico City in the stadium. Funny thing is, it didn’t show me with anyone else. It just showed me in the stadium on a box. And it didn’t show me as an adult. It showed me as a kid.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Carlos’ stand. An in-school suspension supervisor at Palm Springs High School, Carlos reminisced about what led to his demonstration, and the impact it had on his life.
Edwards, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley and a leading expert on race and sports in this country, said what Carlos and Smith did still reverberates today.
“It was a signature moment in a movement that totally redefined sports and the place of race in sports,” Edwards said. “From that point on, it was impossible to take black participation for granted.
“John Carlos and Tommie Smith were principle warriors in the struggles and battles of their generation. This is a legacy they leave to the future.”
Shaping his belief
Prior to Mexico City, Carlos witnessed the civil rights movement firsthand.
As a child, Carlos regularly saw Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play Major League Baseball, in his father’s shoe store.
“(Robinson) being a black man going into a white league, it makes you understand there’s a difference in how you’re perceived by other races,” Carlos said. “They can be gentle or they can be mean. I could see that at an early age.”
As a youth in New York, not only did Carlos see the groundbreaking baseball players, he also regularly listened to Malcolm X, a minister in the Nation of Islam and a leading civil rights activist.
In January 1968, many African American groups came together in New York to support the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a project that Edwards helped form.
A student at the time at San Jose State University, Carlos was invited to the meeting by Edwards, and much to his surprise, Carlos met Dr. Martin Luther King.
“When he came out, it was like a moment that stood still in time,” Carlos said. “In my house, Dr. King is like God’s right-hand man. That’s how my mom depicted Dr. King. He was sent here specifically by God. I remember sitting there looking at him in awe.
“My mother idolized this man, and here’s her baby boy about to go into a room and have a dialogue with him. It’s mind-boggling in terms of why me?”
King supported Edwards’ plan to organize a boycott by African American athletes of the Olympic Games.
“He said he supported the boycott because it would make a monumental statement that the black athletes decided to step back collectively, men and women, decided to step away from the game, that maybe America would see our worth,” Carlos said. “At the same time, it would make a monumental statement, universally, and it would be greater because it’s a nonviolent statement.”
Carlos said it was important for him to understand King, who was heading to Memphis to support the black sanitary public works employees.
Carlos had heard about the death threats to King, including one that said there was a bullet with King’s name on it if he went to Memphis.
“The first question was, ‘why would you go if people were threatening his life?’ I had to hear his answer and look into his eyes,” Carlos said. “He told me, ‘John, I have to go there and stand for people who can’t stand for themselves.’ When he said that, it crystalized who I was as a person.”
It wasn’t King’s words, but his presence, that left an even stronger impression on Carlos.
“I’m looking in his eye to see if I see fear. The man didn’t have any fear,” Carlos said. “That gave me encouragement to know that if you’re doing the right thing, there should be no fear.”
On April 3, King gave one of his memorable “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speeches. The next night, King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.
Making a statement
Carlos and Edwards went to American athletes participating in the Olympic games to see if they would join the boycott.
“It was presented to the black athletes and any other athletes sympathetic to the cause,” Carlos said. “We tried to explain the necessity of this event. Yes, it’s a big sacrifice to give up your dream of winning a gold medal or a medal period. But we felt this was much greater and they should take it into account.”
They found little support, however.
“As we waited things out, others made the statement, ‘I trained all my life to win a medal. I owe it to my church, to my community or to my parents,’ that kind of thing,” Carlos said. “The final consensus, we didn’t have a right to take these people’s dreams away from them. All we could do was present the case, and if they want to go, they have every right to go.”
Realizing no one would boycott, Carlos decided he too would participate in the Olympics. He qualified by winning the Olympic 200-meters trials, beating out Smith, the world record holder, to earn his spot.
“The one reason I went, if I boycotted, and everyone else decided to go, they would get someone else in my place, and they would not have any problem winning a medal because the United States dominated track and field at the time,” Carlos said. “I didn’t think they would represent John Carlos in the fashion I would have liked to have been represented.”
Carlos and Smith will forever be linked, but it doesn’t mean they have a bond beyond what happened in Mexico City.
“To be honest with you, Tommie and I never really had a relationship,” Carlos said. “Our relationship was the victory stand. Two men got together to do something. I think our philosophies are different about a lot of things. (Mexico City) was one thing we stood fast on. Many people of color, blacks in particular, were being oppressed and something needed to be done.”
On the victory stand, Carlos and Smith both raised a fist with their heads bowed to signify black power. Carlos wore beads around his neck to symbolize love and lynching.
Neither one wore shoes, just black socks, to symbolize poverty.
Ricky Wright, Carlos’ principal at Palm Springs High School, was an undergraduate in college when Carlos and Smith made their statement.
“We were all real proud of what he did. It was big for everyone,” Wright said. “If you were an African American at that time, you were right solid with them. It was our voice.”
However, many Americans were irate with the stance by Carlos and Smith on a world stage.
The International Olympic Committee said Carlos and Smith violated an Olympic rule about making a political statement. When the duo returned home, things turned volatile.
“That’s when the death threats started rolling in. I had 300,” Edwards said.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, Edwards obtained his FBI file years later, and it was 3,500 pages.
“A lot of it was FBI dispatches,” Edwards said. “They had me down as armed and dangerous.”
Carlos said he was prepared for the backlash and even the death threats. He wasn’t prepared for how it would affect his family.
“My daughter and my wife, they suffered a tremendous amount,” Carlos said. “And two years later when my son came, it was just a heavy load for them.
“I didn’t take all that into account, but in retrospect, if they asked if I would do it again, I would. I would not add or take anything away. I would do it the same way.”
Carlos’ daughter, Kimme, was three years old when her father raised his fist.
“Our childhood was nothing remarkable. We had challenges like any other family,” Kimme said. “The demonstration did bring a lot on our family, just like anything worth fighting for.
“People have asked me, ‘Does it concern you that he did it with a wife and children?’ I tell them I don’t think it concerned him any more than it did for Malcolm X and Rev. Martin Luther King. He didn’t do it just for his family, but he did it for a greater good.”
When you see Carlos today, he still looks fit. His head is shaved and he sports a gray beard. Carlos doesn’t flaunt what he does, but he doesn’t hide it either.
Carlos is the father of four living children and 16 grandchildren. As the in-school suspension counselor at Palm Springs, he deals with troubled kids.
On one occasion, Carlos, the former world record holder, literally chased down some kids who were skipping classes when they tried to run away.
“They were like, ‘Man, who is that old man?’ I told them, ‘If you were going to school, you would get a chance to find out who I am,’” Carlos said. “Eight months later, there was a history book with me in the book. They go, ‘Mr. Carlos, they said this guy in the book did this thing and it’s got your name. Were you in the Olympics?’
“I said ‘Why don’t you go back and research it and we’ll talk about it.’ They researched it and said, ‘We think it is you.’ And then we sat down and talked.”
Carlos has kept nothing from that day on the medal stand. The gloves belonged to Smith. He gave his warmup suit to an African athlete before he left. And the bronze medal he won is with his mother – contrary to stories that said Smith and Carlos’ medals were stripped.
“I don’t think the materialism was what I was concerned with. I was concerned with getting the job done. That would be everlasting,” Carlos said. “To me, that was far more important, what I did than what I received, you know what I’m saying. The legacy of what I would leave my kids would be far greater than any shirt, uniform, or glove that I may have had.”
In 2005, San Jose State unveiled a statue of Smith and Carlos on the victory stand.
However, Carlos admits his relationship with Smith is tarnished. Much of it had to do with Smith’s autobiography.
“There were a lot of things in his book that I thought were offensive,” said Carlos, who declined to offer specifics. “It was contrary to who I am and what I stand for.”
“There’s no upside to (the Smith-Carlos conflict),” Edwards said. “The reality is, the differences between the two, you will remember none of it in 200 years. That statue on San Jose State’s campus is what people will remember.”
One of the meaningful rewards Carlos received came in 1976, when he went to South Africa.
When he arrived, his hotel was not ready, so they arranged for him to stay in a house with no furniture or windows. Everyone slept on the floor.
When Carlos got up the next morning, he saw a poster of the black power salute.
“They didn’t know who I was,” Carlos said. “I asked them what was this about, to see what they were talking about. They told me they were black kings. They called us black kings. I asked, ‘What do you mean black kings?’ They said we put the weight of the world, the people of color, on their backs and carried them through.”
Glance: John Carlos bio
Birthdate: June 5, 1945
Born: Harlem, N.Y.
Occupation: In-suspension supervisor at Palm Springs High School
Track and field highlights: Won the bronze medal in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics
Off the track: Carlos was a founding member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which was trying to organize a boycott of the Olympic games by African-American athletes. When they could not get enough support, Carlos and Tommie Smith, the gold medalist in the 200 meters, staged the Silent Protest, where they had heads bowed and fists raised on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics.