John Carlos


l. to r., Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, John Carlos.

We live to make history!
– John Carlos

John Carlos came to speak at the University of Oregon. He was one of two athletes – the other being Tommie Smith – who protested against racism in the U.S. at the 1968 Olympics by raising their fists during the playing of the national anthem. Carlos has recently published his autobiography, The John Carlos Story, co-written with Dave Zirin, who also spoke at this event.

Carlos started out by talking about his childhood. He grew up in Harlem. His mother worked as a nurse, his father owned a shoe shop. Carlos was offered a track and field scholarship to East Texas State University. It was there that he first encountered Jim Crow, finding segregated restrooms. “In Texas, my name suddenly became ‘Boy'”, he recalled. He eventually transferred to San Jose State University. The Olympics were coming up. Some people were organizing an Olympic boycott, to protest how the U.S. used the Olympics to create the false impression that Blacks are treated as equal citizens. Carlos was invited to meet with Martin Luther King, Jr., who told him that the boycott would be a great move. When Carlos expressed doubts, King used the metaphor of a lake: if you drop one rock in it, it creates ripples. During their conversation, King mentioned that he was going to Memphis to support a garbageman’s strike there. When Carlos asked him why he was doing that, King replied: “I have to stand for those who can’t stand for themselves.” Carlos recalled that when he looked in King’s eyes, he could see “no fear” in them. Ten days later, King was dead from an assassin’s bullet.

Carlos said that the lesson he learned from this is that one has to “make a total commitment.” At the Olympics, people began backing out of the boycott. It ended up with just him and Tommie Smith raising their fists during their medal ceremony. Peter Norman, the silver medal winner from Australia, wore an OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Righs) button as a sign of solidarity. Carlos said of Norman: “He is my blood brother, because he did the right thing.” Smith and Carlos were told to leave the Olympics early. They were both harshly criticized in the media, and they received death threats. Carlos also said that the Olympic committee put out the false story that their medals were taken away. He said they invented this story to intimidate any future athletes who might get out of line.


John Carlos today.

During the question and answer session, someone asked Carlos how he managed to have so much courage. He said, “I found me. Most people don’t know who they are.” In response to another question, he reminded the audience that 2,000 people were massacred by the Mexican government just before the Olympics. A student brought up the university’s recent plans to defund ethnic studies. “We need to know each other’s histories,” said Carlos. He also talked about the Occupy movement. He said that the movement is giving people courage to stand up for themselves. Another observation he made: “We’re going to have struggles for eternity.”

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One Response to “John Carlos”

  1. Frank Partisan Says:

    Thank you for that nostalgic moment.

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