I recently had the honour of speaking with a man whose legacy is embedded in the fabric of African-American history. A man whose image has been seen in textbooks, on T-shirts, and on billboards around the world. A man whose story I thought I knew - but when all was said and done, I realized that I had no clue just how deep his passion, dedication, and sacrifice ran. The man I speak of is Dr. John Carlos - Olympian, activist, author, and so much more.
Today marks the 44th anniversary of the day that John Carlos, along with fellow American Tommie Smith and Australian Peter Norman took a stand on the Olympic podium for human rights. The year was 1968. Racial tensions were palpable and overt. John Carlos had won the bronze medal in the 200m event in Mexico City, but was struggling to celebrate his win when he knew that upon return to America, he would continue to be treated like a second-class citizen. In a pre-planned move, John and Tommie solemnly raised black-gloved fists while bowing their heads after receiving their medals on the podium. Peter also supported the movement in his own way - by wearing a badge representing the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), the coalition behind the protest.
The fallout was immeasurable. Suspension from the US team, banishment from the Olympic Village, returning home to financial struggles, death threats, and being tracked by the FBI - John and Tommie experienced it all. If America wasn't fair for John Carlos before the Olympics, it definitely wasn't safe afterwards. Dr. Carlos' autobiography, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed The World, details everything from his childhood in Harlem to the protest in Mexico City to beyond - and gave me the jumping off point in learning about this incredible man. In the 90 minutes that we chatted, I was amazed to hear the story in his own words - his passion and emotion were contagious. We talked about everything from civil rights to mental health to children's literacy. Here are some excerpts from our chat, where Dr. Carlos held nothing back:
On media perception after the 1968 Olympics:
"When you sit back and think about what we did 44 years ago, they applied a lot of intimidation...'These are Black militants, they tryin' to overthrow the government, they tryin' to destroy the Olympic movement', you know. And all we were tryin' to say is, 'Hey - we deserve a fair chance to be successful in life too.' That's all that was about. But the general public had to read all kinds of headlines: Neighbourhood Bum. Trouble Maker. All the negatives they could think to put up there."
"Remember, the cause is about the human rights issue. It ain't MY cause! What I did wasn't for me or for Black people, it was for the human species, period. We just had to be the ones on the lowest end of the totem pole. You have to look at it and say, 'I'll sacrifice mine today, so mine can have theirs tomorrow.'"
On whether he could see today's athletes stand for human rights the way the OPHR collective did (which originally consisted of athletes like Carlos, Smith, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell):
"First of all, it was a different era. It was an era of education, an era of self-respect, self-knowledge, an era of Blacks coming out...we have certain individuals that believe in civil rights and justice and equality - we have Steve Nash, now of the Lakers, who stands up for the Hispanics in Arizona - Sprewell (correction: Michael Strahan) that stood up for sexual preference from the New York Giants - we have various individuals that step up, but they're not [continuously] in the limelight, so to speak."
On the role of women in the OPHR movement:
"When we had the boycott in the '60s, most of the focus was put on men. We had some courageous women that was on that team in 1968 that supported us. Maybe the Olympic Project for Human Rights didn't give them the acknowledgement that they should have had, but the women spoke out and the press gave them even less acknowledgment."
On traveling as a person of colour (I name-dropped the Nomadness Tribe here!):
"Here we are in 2012 - we done went to the moon and we talkin' about goin' to Mars, and we've got Black people or people of colour who've never left their neighbourhood! I grew up in Harlem, and when I was a kid, I recall my brothers telling me, 'Man, I'm going in the service.' I said, 'You goin' in the service? For what?' And one of them said to me, 'Well, man, I wanna see the world. Going in the service is my ticket out of Harlem for me to get a chance to experience what the world is all about.' When I got to the point where, in terms of saying 'How am I gonna see the world?', when I got involved in track & field, I think that was a catch-all for me..."
"Man, 95% of us, 98% of us, 99% of us don't go across town much more get on a plane and go to another country, or even go to another state. When your circle is so small and there's not a whole bunch of room to think outside the box because you haven't experienced anything outside the box - you haven't seen anything on the fringe, so to speak."
On mental health issues in the Black community. Dr. Carlos and his 1st wife both suffered from depression, and she commit suicide in 1977 (I shouted out The Siwe Project's No Shame Day here!):
"It's almost like Black people feel this is something you should be ashamed of. Like you should be treated like a leper or something. Like if you breathe on me, I'm gonna catch it. Those were the things we were suppressing. (The mental health discussion) is something that is needed in our community more today than ever in our history. Not only do we have to deal with the way things were set up to destroy us, before we were even born into this world...and then you're going through a heavy mental thing in your head because you don't have an understanding as to what's happening to you as well."
On one of his major passions - children's literacy:
"There's one thing we have to get very, very serious about, and that's literacy programs for kids. White folks, they'll get a book and read to their kids at night, we don't even go to the kids' rooms at night, much more pick up a book. If you don't read a book or a story to a kid, how's the kid even goin' to know that's how you go find the knowledge?"
This is really only the tip of the iceberg of my chat with Dr. Carlos. We touched on so much more about life, legacy, and being Black in America, and all I can say is that I'm blessed to have had the opportunity to hear his story in his own words. Were you aware of Dr. Carlos and the Olympic protest? Never forget - history is all around us!