John Carlos: Protests and boycotts will change the world
The 1968 Olympic bronze medalist says Colin Kaepernick is his hero because he has a blueprint for what will work
When John Carlos raised his fist in the iconic Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, it wasn’t just a moment, it was a movement.
“What happens if they shoot us?” asked Tommie Smith, as they prepared to take the podium, a valid question because of the recent assassinations of African-American leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
“We’re trained to listen for the gun,” Carlos, a 200-meter bronze medalist, told him. “We’ll be OK.”
It was nearly a half-century ago when the sprinters raised black-fisted gloves during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner at the 1968 Games. Both wore black socks and no shoes to represent African-American poverty, and beads to protest lynching, causing a ripple effect that would change the world of sports forever.
Carlos, who continues his social activism around the world, was part of a discussion titled “Power, Race and Patriotism” on Friday night in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, moderated by Melissa Harris-Perry, a Wake Forest University professor of politics, and Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports editor, with whom Carlos co-wrote The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.
Carlos and Smith were banned from the U.S. Olympic team and ordered to leave Mexico. They faced death threats and disgrace when they returned home.
“A lot of people ask if I have regrets. I have no regrets,” Carlos said. “The people who have regrets are the ones who were there in 1968 and did nothing.”
The country has come a long way since 1968 and yet the question remains: Is there a place for activism in sports?
The answer is muddled in loyalties and money-motivated agendas.
As an athlete, advocating and espousing one’s beliefs can come at a grave price with endorsements and careers on the line, but it’s one well worth paying, Carlos said.
“When I went to the games, I had $13. Michael Jordan probably has $13 million [when he competed in the Olympics],” Carlos said. “It’s not about the money. It’s about what you do with the opportunity you’re given.”
In an age when the term “athlete” is sometimes interchangeable with “hero,” it’s the responsibility of athletes to use their star power to incite change, Carlos said. The question of how that can be done relies on taking action, regardless of the consequences.
The Summer Olympics always coincide with the U.S. presidential election, making it a good platform for political activism and one that should be utilized more in the future, he said. If the Olympics happened after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, it would have been a different story.
“I can sum it up in one word: hero. He’s my hero,” Carlos said. “The utter power and simplicity of his protest is genius because anyone can do it. He provided a blueprint on how to resist.”
While Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem is enough to needle critics and incite conversation, he continues to play and his message might not pack the same punch. But if Kaepernick were to boycott, he could easily be replaced, a dilemma many athletes face. The more people who band together to create change, the greater the impact and the lesser the consequences, Carlos said.
University of Missouri football players may have found that sweet spot last year while protesting former university system president Tim Wolfe’s dismissive approach to the racism that was poisoning that campus.
After a hunger strike and student protests failed to produce results, 30 of the school’s football players threatened to boycott and not play, prompting a hurried resignation by Wolfe.
“Just wait for basketball season to start, because people are finding their courage and they’re standing up,” Carlos said. “Why? Because they realize it’s not about their life, it’s about the life of their kids.”
Carlos said lies circulated for years about his Olympic bronze medal being revoked, but that was just to intimidate younger athletes into not following in his footsteps.
Carlos called for a more universal movement regardless of ethnic background.
“You don’t have to be black to make a statement,” he said. “It doesn’t matter the day you’re born or the day you die. What matters is the things you do in between.”
So, how can athletes prompt change without jeopardizing their careers?
“They can’t. You have to lay it all on the line,” Carlos said. “Someone once asked me, ‘Do you pick your fights?’ I said, ‘No, the fights pick you.’ ”