John Carlos, visiting Bellevue for its Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration, reflects on today's racial injustices — some of the same issues he and teammate Tommie Smith protested with a Black Power salute on the victory stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
When John Carlos stepped on the podium after winning bronze in the men’s 200-meter sprint at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics, he knew he was about to take a provocative stand for justice. He had no idea he’d go down in history for it.
He and U.S. track teammate Tommie Smith, who won gold in that same race, donned black-leather gloves and raised their fists in a Black Power salute to protest the oppression of black people in their own country and around the world.
They both wore black socks to protest black poverty. Carlos left his track jacket open, in violation of Olympic etiquette, to honor the working-class blacks and whites of his native New York. And he placed a strand of beads around his neck to protest the lynching of African Americans.
But those gestures didn’t compare to the sight of two black men, each with a gloved fist raised high above his bowed head. For nearly 50 years, the demonstration has stood out as a profound act of resistance to bigotry on the world stage.
Coming only months after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis on April 4, and alongside the rise of the Black Panther Party, Carlos and Smith’s stoic salute burned into America’s consciousness while inflaming the sensibilities of many.
He and Smith were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and kicked out of the Olympic Village. They faced death threats back home.
Over the years, when I’ve thought of the power of black protest, my mind has gone immediately to Carlos and Smith in Mexico City.
More recently, of course, we’ve seen protests against excessive use of police force by Black Lives Matter activists and the #TakeAKnee protests among NFL players and other athletes. Carlos helped plant the seeds of protests like these 50 years ago.
Just as inspiring as those images is Carlos himself, now 73 but no less passionate about the cause of justice. I spoke to him ahead of his keynote address at Bellevue’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration last week.
The straight-talking Harlem native and his Southern teammate Smith were branded as hotheaded revolutionaries, and worse, for doing something that shouldn’t be considered militant — promoting basic dignity and humanity.
Carlos tells me he didn’t go to Mexico City simply to compete. He went there on a mission to call for change at a time when young people were protesting injustice and inequality all over the world, including the violent suppression of student demonstrators in Mexico City just days before the games started.
For Carlos, it was just a matter of placing in the top three so he’d have a platform — the Olympic awards podium — to do what he’d really come to do.
Looking back on his protest, Carlos says he’d had a similar vision — of raising his hand to a crowd that was cheering him one second, then booing him the next — when he was seven or eight years old. Now he was actually living that imagined scene from his childhood — a moment of triumph and joy turned sour by the “anger and venom and viciousness” of the crowd, in this case over his raised fist.
Standing there with his fist in the air, he felt a force greater than himself at play.
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“My hand froze in time,” Carlos says.
What we see in those historic photos looks like the willful act of a man who’d grown tired of racial hatred and oppression.
In his own mind, right then, it seemed as if the whole scene had been willed by God. He believes that more and more each day.
More than that, “When I left the victory stand, I came to the conclusion that this is my act of emancipation; I was liberated,” Carlos says.
He remains so passionate because he knows that too many people — here in America and around the world — aren’t free from oppression and don’t enjoy equal opportunity.
“It’s an eternal fight,” he says.
The racial injustices he raised a fist against 50 years ago are some of the same ones today’s generation of activists, and black athletes, fight.
Carlos says he’s spoken to and supports former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who launched the #TakeAKnee movement in 2016 by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before games.
He feels the spirit of his and Smith’s salute in present-day demonstrations.
Carlos has no patience for people who pay lip service to just causes yet do nothing in their own lives to back that up, though. “Are you real or are you Memorex?” he asks, adapting a famous advertising line from back in the day. “Are you making a statement because it’s fashionable to make a statement?”
He urges people of color, but also white people, to band together to fight for justice and equality, to find strength in unity the way he and Smith — and King — did.
He wanted to convey that message to his audience in Bellevue, a majority-minority city in an Eastside region dealing with its own racial and cultural issues, and troubled history. The recent unfair expulsion of an African-American man from a yogurt shop in Kirkland proves that.
One reason for inviting Carlos to speak in Bellevue is to drive home that city’s commitment to using lessons and actual figures from history to build understanding and reduce prejudice, says Elaine Acacio, the city’s diversity and inclusion administrator.
I ask Carlos if he considers himself a hero for what he did in ’68.
His answer is simple: “I am a man.”
A man with a legacy.
Because he asserted his own humanity, “they threatened my life,” he says.
But his question is this: What is life if we don’t act to make sure that the world our children inherit is more just than the one we grew up in?
“You can take my life,” Carlos says, “but you’ll never take that statement away.”
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