John Carlos raised his black-gloved fist at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, an act that has defined his life. Carlos, who has written an autobiography, will speak in Seattle on Thursday night.
Here was John Carlos, an unapologetic crusader, feeling vulnerable. He looked at his mother, Violis, and tiptoed toward the one question he had spent four decades trying to ask.
This was 2008, 40 years after Carlos had lifted his black-gloved fist into the air at the Mexico City Olympics, teaming with Tommie Smith to make perhaps the most shocking political statement in sports history. Carlos summoned his courage again as he peered into Mom’s eyes.
“Were you ashamed?” he asked.
“I was never ashamed,” Violis said. “I never was, and I never will be ashamed of you. But I was afraid I’d get a call in the middle of the night saying that they’d killed you.”
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The son replied: “Mom, they can kill me. But they can’t kill what I stand for.”
That’s John Carlos in an anecdote. He’s not just a character in a frozen, polarizing moment from 43 years ago. He’s an ordinary man — a high-school guidance counselor — with extraordinary conviction, a keen sense of humanity and the defiance to make the rigid and the apathetic uncomfortable.
He has written a book with Dave Zirin to explain his dauntless life. He’s on a tour promoting “The John Carlos Story,” and he’ll be here at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Northwest African American Museum. Carlos, 66, is as sharp as ever. He’s as passionate as ever, too. When he talks, he sounds neither arrogant because he made history nor bitter because he was ostracized for it. Instead, his desire for equality remains his unobstructed focus. And when you ask about his life, he’s unabashedly honest.
“If I’m pissed off at anything about my life, I’m pissed off at myself for not making things easier for my family,” said Carlos, whose first wife, Kim, committed suicide in 1977. “I lost my first wife in this thing. But I’ll never be bitter toward anyone — not for the criticisms or the death threats or anything. If I’m bitter, they win.”
Carlos’ book is captivating because it is real and searing. He’s not an athlete looking to praise himself or sugarcoat his legacy. It’s as objective as an autobiography can be. You feel history come to life, but you also realize Carlos is very much living in the present.
“I don’t feel embraced, I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer,” Carlos says in a blunt-yet-poetic introduction. “It’s like if you are sick, and no one wants to be around you, and when you’re well, everyone who thought you would go down for good doesn’t even want to make eye contact. It was almost like we were on a deserted island. … But we survived.”
In a telephone interview last week, Carlos admitted he had spent 43 years wondering one thing: “Why me?”
He had to possess courage to take a stand. But he had to have the talent to get to the stand. Carlos originally wanted to be an Olympic swimmer, but he soon realized that, during those times, African-American athletes didn’t have the proper training to become elite swimmers. So he turned to track. At the 1968 Olympics, he took the bronze medal in the 200 meters. Smith won the race, and Australian Peter Norman finished second.
The three decided to make a statement on the medal stand. They all wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. Smith and Carlos didn’t wear shoes — just black socks — to symbolize black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck, and Carlos opted to unzip his tracksuit top to represent blue-collar workers and to wear a necklace of beads to represent those who had been murdered and lynched.
But the most enduring part of the protest happened when the national anthem began. Smith and Carlos raised their black-gloved fists — Smith with his right hand, Carlos with his left — and they lowered their heads.
“People tried to make it a black thing,” Carlos said. “They called it a ‘black power salute.’ It wasn’t a black thing. It was for human rights.”
Why me? Carlos ponders it every day. “When I get before God, that’s the only time I’m going to get the answer,” he says.
He doesn’t ask the question with regret, however. No, he’s proud he had the strength and social consciousness at such a young age to take a stand. The moment defines his life, but in some ways, it was no different than when, as a teen, Carlos set a tree on fire in the courtyard of the public-housing projects in Harlem where his family lived. He did it because a caterpillar infestation was preventing his mother from sitting under the trees in the courtyard, and the building manager had ignored the problem.
“If I’ve got to take a whuppin’ for something I believe in, I’ll take that whuppin’,” Carlos says.
No shame. No fear. No regrets.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com