When John Carlos accepted the bronze medal for the 200-meter race in the 1968 Olympics, he struck a pose.
Not a pose for victory, but one for civil rights. The African-American athlete wore black gloves and socks and raised a single fist.
John Carlos spoke about his life leading up to that event and the fallout it caused to a crowd of students and faculty on Wednesday, Feb. 22 in DPAC.
As he walked on and took a seat center stage, Carlos told the audience he wasn’t “here for applause” – he was there to “reach even just one person in the audience.”
He said, “I am you and you are me. I’m no different, no better than anyone else.”
Since before he was born, Carlos’ family knew that nothing would slow him down. His mother had issues with him during her pregnancy. “I wouldn’t stay still,” he said. “The doctor told my mother, ‘This baby has a mind of his own.’”
He was born feet first into Harlem, New York, which indicated to everyone that “those big feet were going to play a big role in [his] life.”
And that they did.
Carlos said his first foray into running came from running away from the police as he and his friends hopped onto freight trains in an attempt to feed the poor. As they ran away, his friends would always get caught, but he was fast enough to get away every time.
In high school, Carlos joined the athletic department. “By then, I didn’t know anything about activism, but I knew about track and field,” he said. “I knew it was a way for me to get out of the city. … Show me Germany. Show me France. Show me Asia.”
Carlos’ first trip out of the country was to Trinidad. “I was amazed because it was a black country,” he said. Up until that point in his life, he had never truly “seen anything black.” It was his first exposure to black culture.
He told his track coach he never wanted to leave Trinidad, to which his coach responded, “Europeans need to see you.”
Carlos said he knew his coach meant that they needed to see him run, but he realized Europeans and Americans alike needed to see him as an equal.
He said this was further reinforced on a high school track and field trip to Texas. As soon as he set foot in the airports he noticed bathrooms labeled “whites only” and “coloreds.” This was his first exposure to de jure segregation. Also upon their arrival in Texas, Carlos’ coach stopped referring to him as John and began calling him “boy.”
It was his time in Texas that made him realize how detremental “this thing called racism, bias and prejudice is,” said Carlos.
He said he took some time to think about what caused it.
His conclusion? “Fear. … White people had fear of us black people, and black people had fear of themselves,” he said.
From then on, he said he made it his goal to use his skill to promote civil rights. Taking advantage of his newly gained fame, Carlos decided to send a message at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games.
The people he trained with told him to go to the Olympics to “beat Russia.” He told them, “No – I’m going there to beat America.”
Within a span of two weeks, John Carlos went from being the most celebrated to “the most vilified man in the world” and “a troublemaker” after his now-infamous black power salute, he said, simply because he chose to stand up for black rights.
People weren’t ready to see something like that, he said, although, civil rights have come a long way since then.
“My time is almost over,” he said. “I’ve got maybe 20 years left in life. I’ll be there until the last drop, trying to wake as many people up as I can. But the question is, ‘Who’s going to step into my shoes?’”