Almost 50 Years On, His Fist Still Raised
Photo: Agence France Presse/Getty Images

Olympic runner and iconic civil rights activist John Carlos on why athlete advocacy has never been more needed

On October 16, 1968, a young man from Harlem stood barefooted on a podium in Mexico City listening to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” John Carlos, then 23, had just earned the Olympic bronze medal in the 200-meter dash final—a disappointment, to be sure, after a commanding win in the event at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials the month before well under the current world record. (Carlos’ mark is debated; in a Sports Illustrated story from 1991, Carlos says it was 19.7, which USATF seems to confirm, while Puma, which made the track spike that got the record nullified, clocked it at 19.92.) But at that moment, Carlos, who was standing barefoot to protest poverty, wasn’t thinking about his finishing place so much as the podium it offered. With teammate, world record-holder and gold medalist Tommie Smith next to him, the two waited a beat as the music began to play. Then they bowed their heads and raised their gloved fists in the salute of Black Power and a protest to racial discrimination, ushering in an age of athlete on-field activism.

While 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of Smith and Carlos’ salute for racial justice, their fists have never seemed more pertinent. On August 14, 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to quietly sit during the playing of the U.S. national anthem in protest against police brutality. A week later, Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line of the Olympic marathon with his wrists above his head en route to a silver mdeal. “The Ethiopian government is killing my people so I stand with all protests anywhere as Oromo is my tribe,” he told the BBC. As 2017 comes to a close, the athlete’s right—and responsibility—to protest has never been as fiercely contested since the 1968 Olympics.

I recently caught up with with Carlos to talk about his moment, its significance today and why he’d do it again.

Motiv Running (MR): How does it feel to look back on that moment?

Carlos: Well, the beat goes on. We’re still fighting for equality, fighting for respect, fighting for opportunities to succeed in life. We still haven’t accomplished the mission as a society. A lot more people are clued in now as to what the issues are, and I think 50 years later we’re starting to have some sort of discussion about race relations – begrudgingly, I might say, just based on the reactions to Mr. Kaepernick. Society is not comfortable with having a conversation about race relations, but through the actions of Mr. Kaepernick, myself and others, it’s almost like they have no choice – the funnel is getting so narrow, they have to deal with the issue.

MR: How does society’s understanding of race relations today feel compared to yours in ‘68?

It wasn’t just what was going on in society at my precise time, but what was going on in society in my father’s time and his father’s. My father was in the First World War, and I saw the perils that he was talking as a young kid in New York. I saw “White Flight” as a young boy, and I asked my father, “Why? Where are they going?” He said, “Son, I don’t know where they’re going, but I have an idea why they going.” Now they come back, and not only do they come back, but now they want change the rules, they want to change the name of Harlem, they want to change, you know, the whole fabric. That goes back to their white superiority all over again.

American sprinters Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) conducted a silent protest during the award ceremony of the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. During the awards ceremony, Smith and Carlos protested against racial discrimination: they went barefoot on the podium and listened to their anthem bowing their heads and raising a fist with a black glove.

MR: How would you compare the fallout from the ’68 Olympics to Kaepernick’s?

They’re identical. [Track and field] wasn’t just a marquis sport; it was the number one sport. We were on the front page of every newspaper. We were the topic of discussion for every radio and TV show. But it took a long time for our message to vibrate in my era because the facts weren’t put out there. I didn’t have an opportunity to speak such as [Kaepernick] has, to reach people and give them the chance to think about [our gesture] themselves, as opposed to reading headlines and letting the media dictate what our thought process was, whether it was right or wrong. The internet just expanded his situation that much more.

MR: What do you think about athletes like Kaepernick and Lilesa making their own stands?

I’m extremely proud of them. A gold medal or a silver medal or a bronze medal, is that greater than facing the issues of your own community? You see people losing their lives and people being held back in life, and you should close your eyes to it as an athlete? That’s absurd.

MR: What is the significance of Kaepernick’s stance?

Well, society has a responsibility. We don’t realize that we have to step forward and deal with the issues, as opposed to sweeping them under the rug. Mr. Kaepernick chose to step away from two or three million dollars a year to be concerned about individuals that are fighting to get a job, to make $30,000 a year. He took to the platform to say, “I’m concerned about police homicides in the black community.” For him to step away from his economic base to make that statement, I feel that the people have to respect him.

MR: Your protest at the ’68 Games is often called ‘iconic.’ Do you see Kaepernick and Lilesa’s gestures in a similar light?

You look at how long it took for Gandhi to get recognized for what he did. How long did it take before Dr. King got recognized for what he did? Or Rosa Parks for what she did? It takes a while for people to realize that these individuals are ahead of their time. They will stand shoulder to shoulder with those individuals. When you take all the shit and set it on the side, it comes down to a simple thing: right versus wrong. Period.

MR:What responsibility do athletes have in activism?

Every athlete should be a voice for those that are left behind in their communities. I don’t see politicians step up and make those statements – white, black or blue. I don’t see the clergy or the business people step up and make the statement Mr. Kaepernick made or the statement that I made 45 years ago. Someone has to bring attention to the ills of society. You know what Mr. Kaepernick and myself and others are to society? We’re castor oil. Castor oil is a medicine that they give you, when you’re constipated, to relieve yourself. And it’s the nastiest medicine on the planet. Society doesn’t like John Carlos or Mr. Kaepernick or Paul Robeson or Malcolm X or Martin Luther King because they’re castor oil for society. Society doesn’t like it at the time, but in the long run, this castor oil is good for us. And that’s where Mr. Kaepernick is right now. He’s that bad taste in the mouth of society, when down the line society will realize that he was the great formula for them to advance.

MR:What goes through a person’s mind after he or she takes a stand like this?

A depression comes over you, for the mere fact that you know that you’re doing the right thing, but people don’t really understand and they don’t really choose to understand. But once you come to grips with yourself, then you begin to build endurance.

MR: When was the last time you spoke with Kaepernick?

About five weeks ago.

MR: How was he doing?

He’s doing well. I think that he’s coming to the point where he’s resolved. You sit back and you think about this: He didn’t disrespect the flag, he didn’t disrespect the United States. He did it while the anthem was going on because that will intrigue more people. I could have gone on Broadway when they had the greatest play going, doing my thing, and made a statement, but the world would not have seen it as powerful as they saw it during the Olympic Games.

MR: As you look back, was your gesture worth it?

By all means, it was worth it. And if I needed to do it again tomorrow, no hesitation.

MR: Why?

Nobody knew who Gandhi was when he first started fighting for civil justice. Dr. King learned from Gandhi. I learned from Dr. King. Mr. Kaepernick learned from me. The only way you going to turn the stampede around is to show them that you’re right, and that symbol will rise as that mushroom rise and expand throughout the world.

VIDEO: John Carlos Talks About Meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King

Jon Gugala

Jon Gugala is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, Playboy, and elsewhere.