The life behind the icon

JOHN CARLOS and Tommie Smith will forever be  icons of resistance for their heroic and defiant Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics after winning, respectively, the bronze and gold medal for the 200 meter dash. It is one of the most enduring single images from the Black freedom struggle of the 1960s. However, the self-portrait that emerges from The John Carlos Story, recently published by Haymarket Books with the collaboration of award-winning sportswriter Dave Zirin, is of a passionate and militant fighter for social justice whose chosen vehicle for struggle happened to be sports. Had John Carlos never stepped onto a racing track, he still would have been a noteworthy and inspiring fighter for our movement.

In the first chapter, titled “Harlem World,” the reader is given a vivid description of the post-renaissance Harlem that shaped him and thousands like him. It was not long before the young Johnny Carlos learned about the racism deeply imbedded in American society:

Here I was in Harlem, and the majority of people coming into our uptown paradise were white people coming from downtown. I also saw how even when our African-American royalty, “Satchmo,” Ella, “Lady Day,” would be performing, they would always have to go in through the back door. This spoke to me in a very special way.

Carlos’ education would continue as he gravitated towards sports and decided that he would become an Olympic swimmer. Describing how he felt as a twelve-year-old boy being told by his father that swimming was not an option for him (there were no pools that Blacks could swim in), Carlos writes, “I was dejected and depressed. For the first time in my life, racism had bitten me and left a mark.”

The early chapters are filled with equal numbers of stories of major athletic victories and smaller, but no less significant, victories against daily injustices. There is also a fascinating section on his interactions with Malcolm X. As a boy, Carlos had heard Malcolm speak on street corners. At fourteen, he began attending Malcolm X’s meetings at his mosque on 116th street. Carlos was so “hooked” that he followed Malcolm X from place to place and “fired questions at him,” a relationship that lasted for five years.

“I was just in love with the man,” recalls Carlos. “Maybe it was because he made time for me in the streets. Maybe it was because he made me raise my head up high…He challenged the legitimacy and seriousness of either of the two dominant political parties to take the realities of racism seriously.” Carlos clearly regrets not having been at the Audubon Ballroom the day Malcolm was shot—he was in upstate New York learning how to drive.

By his late teens, he had emerged as the dominant local figure in amateur track and field, poised to go off to one of the elite California college programs. However, the scholarship offers dried up as a result of undiagnosed dyslexia, and he was left with East Texas State as his best option for pursuing his Olympic dreams.

Commerce, Texas was not a bastion of interracial tolerance and openness. Carlos recounts his first jarring encounter with Jim Crow, coming across segregated bathrooms almost minutes after getting off the plane. Things did not get much better from there. There was  constant strife between him and the coaching staff, partly fueled by the latter’s ineptitude, but largely caused by his awareness that college athletics made big money from young Black athletes such as  himself.

These experiences shaped and prepared Carlos for the biggest possible stage, the 1968 Olympic games. Early on he joined the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) led by sprinters Tommie Smith and Lee Evans and young, radical professor Harry Edwards. Everyone remembers Carlos and Smith’s actions on the medal stand, but the proposed boycott of the games by Black athletes has largely been forgotten, as has the program of the OPHR: the re-banning of apartheid South Africa from the games; the removal of Avery (dubbed “Slavery” by his detractors) Brundage, the racist president of the International Olympics committee who brought the Olympics to Hitler’s Berlin; and the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavy-weight boxing title. OPHR was eventually successful in the first demand.  This, combined with a massive ideological offensive against the boycott, made it difficult to convince many athletes to stay home—although many prominent Black athletes supported the boycott, including Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), each the top figure in his respective sport.

Realizing that even though their larger campaign was thwarted, OPHR supporters still needed to strike whatever blow against racism they could. In a hastily improvised decision, Carlos and Smith raised their fists on the medal stand—an act for which they paid and are still paying a heavy price. The viciousness of the US media campaign was swift, intense, and prolonged. For outraging the powers that be, they became pariahs in their sport.

Notably, Carlos and Smith were not alone in Mexico City, on the medal stand or off it. The US Olympic team supported them, including the all-white Harvard crew team, who issued a scathing denunciation of racism in America in defense of their action. And, Peter Norman, the silver medal winner from Australia, showed his solidarity at the medal ceremony by wearing an OPHR button. For this act of solidarity, Norman, too paid a heavy price: treated as a pariah upon his return to his country, he was thenceforth completely shut out of the Australian track world.

The final portions of the book relate Carlos’ decades-long battle with poverty and depression as he struggled to provide for his family, until redemption of a sort—a statue in his and Smith’s honor at San Jose State, as well as much-deserved honorary doctorates—which is the bare minimum owed to these courageous fighters. John Carlos, however, is not just a historical figure whose story had to be told; he continues to speak out for social justice. He spoke, for example, at the Occupy encampments in New York and Chicago last October.

This book is not just for sports junkies like the present reviewer—it is a must read for anyone concerned with fighting the hideous system of institutional racism in America.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story