Olympian and iconic medal-stand protester Dr. John Carlos has had quite the week. After another group of young athletes raised their fists just as he did alongside Tommie Smith at the 1968 Summer Games, Dr. Carlos traveled to Washington, DC, for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the unveiling of a statue bearing his likeness. Then it was on to the White House, where Dr. Carlos, Tommie Smith and all of the 2016 Summer Olympians were greeted by President Obama. It was the first time either man had been greeted at the White House. I spoke to him during the whirl of this wild week. The following is an edited transcript, and the full audio interview is embedded at the bottom of the page.
Dave Zirin: What does it feel like to see people who are, in some cases, not even 12 years old, let alone 20 or 30, taking the field, raising their fist, and saying they are doing it in the tradition of what you did with Tommie Smith in 1968?
Dr. John Carlos: I feel like they’ve done their homework. I don’t think we followed our history. Back in the ’40s and ’30s and 20’s, there was a thing called Black History that would be passed down among the parents and the grandparents. So it gives me the impression, today, that maybe I was a gardener or horticulturist or someone that tilled the earth, planted the seeds, watered the garden, and what you see in these young individuals is the fruit of my labor. They understood what happened at that particular time, they used the slide rule to see whether we have really progressed in this nation as a race of people and they feel that we can go farther and we’re pushing the ball up the road to get there.
What words of advice do you have to people who are young, who are modeling themselves after you in so many ways and now feeling a terrible backlash?
Death threats are part of the game. For those that stood for what was right in society throughout the annals of time, they’ve always had people who’ve preyed upon them and threats against their lives, but the issue is greater than one’s life. People want change and they want change now, and they’re willing to step up and be that sacrificial lamb, because when you think about the halls of justice, it moves slower than a snail’s pace.
So, you know, as I did what I did 48 years ago, it wasn’t for John Carlos at that particular time, but it was for Malik Carlos and Kimme Carlos and all my kids and their peers and their grandkids, to make it a better playing field for them. We have to take the initiative to start somewhere. And God seems to send us back, like Harry Belafonte was there, John Carlos was there, Paul Robeson was there, there’s always someone that’s going to come up with a clear mind and a strong heart and a desire to make this a better society.
What’s your impression of Colin Kaepernick?
I think Colin Kaepernick is a gifted individual. He sees something wrong, as I did as a young man, and he chose to sacrifice himself to make a statement for all people. His whole thing was not about burning up the American flag. His thing is about dealing with America straight on, as I did 48 years ago, to tell them that there’s something wrong within the system. He didn’t say that all police are bad, he just said that they have certain police that’s bad and you need to look at yourself to try and weed this thing out.