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Mexico City, 1968
When John Carlos was a young boy in Harlem, New York, he had a vivid dream in which he was standing on a podium, surrounded by people shouting and jeering. Unclear what it signified, he became convinced that it would one day come true. By the 1968 Olympics, when Carlos, an accomplished sprinter, was preparing to compete for the US, he had figured out the dream’s meaning. He would make a political gesture of solidarity with the civil rights movement, and he would do it on the Olympic medal podium.
“I was born to make that statement,” he says of the salute he and Tommie Smith gave after receiving their medals for the 200m sprint. Smith had won gold, Carlos the bronze and before accepting their medals the two sprinters agreed they would stand barefoot, to symbolise black poverty, each with their heads bowed and a single arm held aloft when the national anthem played. The photograph of the two men standing, fists in the air, would become one of the enduring images of the 20th century.
Age has not softened Carlos, who recently published a memoir, The John Carlos Story. He still has a goatee beard and a gravelly voice that does not betray emotion. He does not hide his reverence for his former team mate, who he continually refers to as “Mr Smith”, yet he writes that the two have had “differences and problems” over the years. They reconciled in 2008 on the 40th anniversary of the Mexico games when they came together to do a series of interviews, which “brought our lives back into realignment”.
The salute in 1968 came in a turbulent year. The Vietnam war was raging and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been slain months earlier. The Black Panther movement had burst into the national spotlight and black people across America were pressing for equal rights.
A boycott was briefly discussed by the black athletes in the US Olympic team, but was then called off. “We were disappointed,” says Carlos. “I approached Mr Smith… I said that we needed to do something.” They agreed to make their statement on the podium – but first they had to get there. “The race had no relevance for me other than I had to get on the victory stand.” What about the personal glory? “That was the last thing I was thinking about.”
Olympic great Jesse Owens tried to talk them out of it. His pleas fell on deaf ears: Carlos’s aversion to racism had been forged in Harlem where he came to know Malcolm X. Not protesting was inconceivable. “Jesse Owens was doing what he was doing. But we were a new school, a new generation.”
Little could have prepared him for the response. After he and Smith walked off the field there were jeers and awful racist abuse. The US team expelled the pair, sending them home while a hostile US media poured scorn on what they had done. “Doors were closed to me,” says Carlos. He was unable to work and received death threats. The pressure took a toll on his relationship with his wife, who would later commit suicide. “If I ever had to change anything, that would be it,” he says, sadly. “How I would protect my wife and my kid. But I couldn’t change what I was destined to do.”
Yet Carlos and Smith would eventually be seen as heroes of the civil rights movement. A statue of the two men was erected at San Jose State University; Carlos received honorary degrees and became a guidance counsellor at a high school in Palm Springs. The fire of political protest still burns bright in him. “I am here with you because I am you,” he told protesters from the Occupy movement in Wisconsin recently. “I’m not trying to save the world,” he tells me. “When I was a kid I used to think about Robin Hood. He was an activist and he was defiant! He wanted everybody to have a better life. So do I.”