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.
It’s just too many people dying and he feels, as I feel, and many other people feel, there’s needless death. When you see an individual die because he’s selling loose cigarettes or you see an individual kid die because he’s in the park with a cap gun, well, where else is a kid supposed to be than in a park with a cap gun? When you see a young lady get picked up for a traffic citation, next thing she knows, she’s hung in a jail cell, these things need to be investigated and when you sit back and think about the investigations, there have never been any prosecutions. No one pays the price for these individuals.
You were at the opening ceremonies of the National Museum of African American History and Culture where there is a statue of you and Tommie Smith and Peter Norman.What was it like to be at the opening ceremonies?
If I was to put it in a phrase and say what I think about the museum, I have to think back to our lord and savior, the guy that they said made miracles, because they have made a miracle here on Earth. That’s how deep this particular museum is. I don’t think he left a stone unturned, I think that people are extremely emotional and excited about what they’ve seen in the museum. I feel that the design of the museum has taken the nation’s capital to a new level, a new zone in terms of its structure, letting them know that it’s a new day. Now, to see the statue there of myself, it makes you reflect on your kids and your kids’ kids and their kids on down the line.
When I was a youngster, my father gave all of my siblings the value of the family name, Carlos. He told us, “Whatever we do in life, don’t do anything to shame or to embarrass or tarnish the family name.” So it brings tears to my eyes now just to talk about it. To think that our name will be in the annals of time. That statement, is not a statement for self, but it’s a statement for society, for humanity and for the Carlos name to be attached to that statement is remarkable. I smile to myself to think that my grandkids will come up and say that’s your pop-pop there or that’s your great-great-grandfather there and it gives them the encouragement to do the right thing and stand behind what you do.
There’s a big difference, though, with this statue of Tommie Smith and you that stands at San Jose State, and that’s Peter Norman. Peter Norman, the silver medalist from Australia, who, of course, stood with Tommie Smith and you and wore a button that said “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” He’s not there at San Jose, but he is on the medal stand and part of the statue at the Smithsonian. Why is that?
When the statue came about at the museum and I said, “It’s great that you guys are putting a statue up of Tommie and I, but it’s imperative that you put Peter Norman up there as well. I said, because your job is to educate the masses through this museum and they would never be educated in the museum of African-American culture and history, it would never be true history if Peter Norman is not there. And then I had to remind him also that we don’t want it to be a situation like John Brown. John Brown should have statues in and around the United States as well. We don’t want him to be forgotten, as well as we don’t want Peter Norman to be forgotten for his contributions to having an equal playing field for all races, particularly the black race.
Is there a fear that when they make a statue out of you, that it’s a way to sort of like make you safe, to extract your political teeth?
No, not really, because that symbol is so revealing and so strong, for years after I’m dead and gone that symbol will still inspire and motivate individuals to seek out higher ground and to push the stone up the road, to making a better society for all people. Now, that’s a eternal job. It’s not a job that you say in 10 months, or 10 years or 25 years the job will be done. It’s an eternal job. You’re going to do this job as long as the bubble spins!
You are also going to the White House this week. What is that about?
That’s incredible to think that I’m going to the White House, and once again I can say 48 years later from my involvement in the Olympics itself. I would hope that my teammates from the 1968 team, one day, will one day have their day at the White House as well, but at this particular time, Tommie Smith and I will be going to the White House as a part of the 2016 Olympic team that did so well. I take my hat off to all of the team, the women of the team in particular, for track and field, because the women came through big-time. So we have to respect and honor their good deeds.
But, relative to going to the White House, man, it’s a very emotional thing for me, in a sense that my father was in the First World War. Gave up blood, had relatives in the Second World War and the Korean War and none of them, I don’t think, ever got close enough to the president of the nation that they stood for. For me to go, for my wife to be there by my side, I don’t think it gets any greater than that. To be able to shake the president’s hand, the first black president of the United States, that would be something that would linger through my mind.
This is also tied to an apology that’s being put forward by the United States Olympic Committee for how they treated you and Dr. Smith, is that correct?
I don’t know whether they’re attempting an apology as much as I think what they did is lowered the drawbridge and were willing to come across the drawbridge to greet us with open arms. I think they made it clear to me that they had a charter and they have rules and regulations that were instilled in the Olympic process, I guess at the beginning, and they feel that I crossed the line with my statement.
However, they did express that we feel that what you did was the right movement and thought to say that you stand for justice and equality for all people. They admired the strength that we had to endure the pain and sacrifice we had [made] by making that statement. They acknowledged the fact that we haven’t wavered from what our beliefs were at that particular time. And they reiterated that we agree with your statement, we just disagree with [you using] the podium for doing it. I can accept that.
But relative to an apology, well, people always ask me, would you be happy with an apology from the USOC? I don’t really feel that the USOC owes me an apology, but an apology is owed by an individual American by the name of Mr. Brent Musburger.
Brent Musburger owes you an apology.
Absolutely. I think I’m offended by the statements that Brent Musburger made, and I think every American, true American, should be offended by the statement that he made in reference to Dr. Smith and myself.
You’re talking about in 1968, as a young reporter for the Chicago American, Brent Musburger described you and Tommie Smith as “black-skinned storm troopers.”
Absolutely. So what he’s calling me is a neo-Nazi. So I guess, based on what we were fighting for at that particular time, if America accepted his statement towards us to call us neo-Nazis or fascists or whatever you might want to call it, then America is just acknowledging that maybe Kaepernick is right, maybe John Carlos is right, or all those civil activists down the line have been right. When a white individual can call a national figure in the Olympics games a black-skinned storm trooper and American society let it go? That’s racism in itself. So if anyone owes an apology, it’s Brent Musburger. And just to think about the fact that he made millions of dollars on the backs of so many young blacks that are out there playing every Saturday, and I would say that 99.9 percent of them have no idea that he called us black storm troopers.
Do you think police violence and racism are actually getting worse now or do you think it’s just a question of us being more aware?
I think it’s getting worse in the sense that, you know, we didn’t have social media when I was a kid. What we did have, we had community policing. When I say community policing, I’m talking about, we had police that would beat police. They walked the streets, they knew the people in the community, the people in the community knew them. Some of them, we’d go to the people’s houses to have lunch or dinner. They knew the kids in the community.
If a kid did something and he was going the wrong way, they wouldn’t throw him on the ground, face down, they wouldn’t shackle him, drag him out, or shoot him or beat him up, they might take him home and let his parents deal with him and make him realize what you’re doing is wrong. We no longer have a beat police.
Used to be years ago, two riding in the car, now it’s one riding in the car. They circle a whole area like they’re herding cattle, to keep them in their stables, so to speak. So there’s no relationship with them. If you look at something that’s supposed to be less than you, that’s less than you, whether it be sheep or cattle, and when it gets out. Well, what [do we do to the] sheep when it gets out and keeps getting out? They take the prod and put the prod on you, give you some shock treatment. Let them know that if you come through this gate, you’re going to get lit up again. And that’s the attitude that they have amongst certain police within these various agencies across the nation.
I’m watching the cattle. If I have to take down one of the cattle because he stepped out of line, I’ll do it. We have to make sure that the police department is responsible for their policing. We’re not saying that the police, universally, is a bad situation. We’re saying that you have bad elements within your agency and it’s your responsibility, your job, you take the oath to protect the public. If you’re not protecting the public because your own people are committing atrocities, then you have to take an inward look for yourself to deal with these atrocities that are happening from your agency. Simple as that.
You know, that’s all that young man is doing right now by taking a knee, saying, America has to take a better look at itself.
If you remember back in 1968, when I was on the podium, I had a black shirt on to cover up my USA jersey. I didn’t cover up my jersey because I was mad at United States. I covered my jersey because I was ashamed of the United States. There’s a difference in being mad at someone and being ashamed of someone, and I was ashamed because all the projection that America had put out through the world, it was a farce, relative to where I was standing, and I felt that America could have done and should have done better. That’s all these people are saying today. America, you can and you should do better.