On October 16, 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists in a political demonstration against racism on the 200 meter medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics. Now, on the 50th anniversary of that iconic, indelible moment, Dr. John Carlos sat down with us for a rare interview about his journey.
Dave Zirin: It’s been 50 years. As you’ve traveled around this year, what has the response been like?
Dr. John Carlos: It has been overwhelmingly positive. In my talks I’ve been trying to spark people into becoming active in the process of being a human being in this society. I’ve been using this anniversary moment not just to talk about the past, but to try to prepare people for the present and the future. But that’s been the case for all of these past 50 years. I’ve been trying to make people realize that I’ve been raising my fist every day for 50 years. But I cannot do it by myself. I’ve been challenging every audience to step up and to take the initiative to make change within society. Do it for the next generation. You have to be willing to give up your life to make a life for them. And it’s your responsibility as adults to make it a better life for the next that comes along. So I’ve been encouraging people—this year and for 50 years—to step up to the plate and leave their fears in the box.
DZ: Could you have ever imagined, 50 years ago, as you were leaving Mexico City to boos, jeers, and media attacks, that you would get this kind of response in 2018?
JC: I knew it was coming. I had no doubt that it was coming. When you shock somebody, like we did on that medal stand, they go into a panic-type situation because they’ve never experienced being shocked. But once people get over the initial shock, the average people, the grassroots people, the people that understand, relax enough to realize what we did. I had faith that would happen 50 years ago and I see it today. I just did a talk in Topeka, Kansas. That’s a red state. I had 2,000 people rush to be in the audience to hear me speak. Out of the 2,000, I would say 700 or 800 of them must’ve been high-school students, the majority white. I was impressed that those parents in the red state allowed their kids to hear my speech. So it makes me realize that what I’ve been saying over the years has started to resonate with people, regardless of what their ethnic background is. I think everyone is looking for some sort of relief in the way that we’ve been living our lives on this planet.
DZ: You’ve been doing these talks in places like Topeka, but you’ve turned down a great many high-profile interviews this year. Why have you made that choice?
JC: Well, there’s two reasons, Dave. The first is, I’ve spoken every day of these last 50 years on the issues concerning me in Mexico and issues that confront us today in modern times. I’m not here to celebrate what I did 50 years ago—which is what the media now wants me to do—because we haven’t reached the finish line yet.
The second thing is, I feel that every program that I’ve spoken to, whether it be newspapers or whether it be magazines or whether it be the radio or whether it be television, all these various entities or agencies made financial gains based on what I had to say. They don’t give The New York Times away, and they don’t they give the LA Times away. They don’t stand on the corner and tell people, “Hey, here’s a free paper.” They sell them. The radio stations sell advertising time. The TV sells advertisement time. Not to mention the magazines sell them everyday. I can no longer give my story away for them to sell the story or to charge me to read my own story after I give it to them and then when it’s all said and done, the reporter that came to interview me got paid and I’m sitting back, wondering to myself, ‘Am I going to just leave my legacy for my kids? Or am I going to have some sort of financial gains to leave them, as well?’ I refuse to go the next 50 years or however much time I have in life, to give my story for free again.
DZ: Very understood but you know I need to ask: what is the most vivid memory that you have of 1968? Is there one moment that stands out to you, above all others?
JC: Yeah, the moment on the victory stand, man. Reflecting back on my life, and thinking back to that vision that I had as a child of being on that stand. I think that was the most intriguing thing to me. If you look at the expression on my face and my eyes, you can see I was back in time in my mind, and it came crystal clear to me what was taking place at that precise moment. It was one and the same from my vision of being there when I was just a boy.
I thought that was amazing in the sense that whoever the creator of this planet is put me in that situation. I don’t know what God’s name is, but I know God is there and he used me as a vessel to try and wake people up. And I felt extraordinarily proud and pleased. I know we put the shock treatment on people and shocked them enough that they will start to spin their wheels and have some sort of reckoning in their minds. They’ll have to start to think about, “Why would this individual step up and do what he’s doing in life?”
Those are the things that were really tangible to me, more than anything. I think once we got done with the race, I said, “Yeah, now let’s get it on! This is what I came here for. This is what I was born for.” And I was just extremely proud then, and 50 years later, I’m extraordinarily proud.
DZ: How has it felt to see this new generation of athletes pick up the torch in the last few years and also use their platform in sports to speak about racism, oppression, and human rights?
JC: It makes me think of my parents. My parents did a real fine job raising me and my brothers and sisters. For them to be proud of me and then for then to see people build monuments at San Jose State University and build a statue at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, it just confirms that this protest was a lightning rod for all young individuals to realize that they play a far more significant role than just being an entertainer or just being an athlete. I think they looked at the blueprint of 50 years ago, and a lot of them are feeling, “I can do something. I want to do something.”
So that makes me feel extraordinarily proud, to realize that a lot of individuals are out there saying, “Man, I’ve been waiting for this blueprint.” And I thank God that I’ve lived long enough to have the chance to see it, analyze it, and then be part of the this tradition.
DZ: Do you have any advice for these athletes? In terms of dealing with the ups and downs like you’ve had to deal with over the years?
JC: My advice to them is to stay focused, stay strong and stay committed. The most important thing is, you don’t realize that what you’re going through until you get to the finish line; until you actually run through the turmoil. Turmoil comes from everyone going downstream, when you’re going upstream. That’s the turmoil. People telling you that you’re wrong, about what you’re doing. You’re wrong about the way that you’re going. You’re rocking the boat. That’s the turmoil you go through.
But the bottom line is, you got into it because you thought you were right about what you were doing, about needing to have change, and you’re that catalyst to make change. Stick to your guns, stay strong, keep your faith in God, but keep your faith, more so, in yourself, and you will succeed at the end.
DZ: I want to know your reaction to that last paragraph in this week’s Sports Illustrated article about the 50th anniversary, where Tim Layden interviews Tommie Smith and writes, “I ask Smith if there is anyone he would like to talk to about all this, a kindred soul who might understand the struggle and the wounds, the stubbornness of progress and the evil of hate. Smith nods slowly, turns to face me and offers the slightest hint of a shrug. His answer: ‘John.’” Everyone knows the relationship between you both has been at times rocky…
JC: That’s very decent of Tommie to say that. I have a lot of love and admiration for Tommie, as I’ve stated before and I’ll state it again. Tommie and I have our differences about our approaches to various things in our history, but I think the ultimate respect, based on our history, is far greater than any emotions that we may have or any friction that we may have had along the way.