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'68 Olympian: If You're Famous And You're Black, You Have To Be An Activist


Time and again, Olympic officials stress the games are not a place for politics. It's a time for athletes to rise above. Well, one Olympian who disagrees is John Carlos.


He won the bronze medal for the 200-meter dash in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Along with gold medalist Tommie Smith, he became famous for one powerful gesture at the medal ceremony. The two black athletes raised their fists during the national anthem. It was an act of protest over racial inequality, and it caused an uproar. John Carlos joined us from his home in Georgia.

And remind us of that moment. How much of a political statement did you intend to make?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, we were making a humanitarian statement. Now, if you have to cross the lines of politicism, then so be it. But we were there basically making concerns about people that was less fortunate in this society in which we live.

MONTAGNE: Although at the time, with that clenched fist, it was read by many as a Black Power salute. And this at a time...

CARLOS: I don't think - I don't believe it was read by many as a Black Power salute. I think what happened was - I think they were influenced by headlines, by the right-wing press that was put out there relative to us being black militants or we trying to burn down America and burn down the Statue of Liberty, which was total nonsense.

MONTAGNE: So it wasn't, in your - for you or Tommie Smith, a Black Power salute.

CARLOS: The only black power was our black butts running down that track. That was the power right there in itself.

MONTAGNE: Years later, John Carlos would say he could still feel fire. But immediately after making that statement on the Olympic podium, life, he says, was hell. Over the next decade, Carlos says he lost friends. His family came under fire. And after his marriage fell apart, his wife committed suicide. But still, John Carlos remained active in the world of sports.

So now, 48 years later, you've spoken out for black athletes. You've also written, and I'm quoting here, "if you're famous and you're black, you have to be an activist."

CARLOS: Well, I think that if you're famous and you're black, you have an opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless. It's your responsibility to realize that although you made it in this bubble, so to speak, 99.9 percent of the people from your environment has not made it in that bubble. If I stood on 125th Street in front of the Apollo and said certain things, I don't think I would reach as many people as I would have reached had going out - going to Mexico City to speak about the issues.

MONTAGNE: Are you watching the Olympics?

CARLOS: Yes, a matter of fact, I'm missing the Olympics right now as I'm interviewing with you.

MONTAGNE: When you watch the Olympics today, do you see any difference at all? I mean, you know, Usain Bolt, for heaven's sakes - do you see a different world from the world that you were in in 1968 in Mexico City?

CARLOS: Well, you know, let me tell you something. You know, Mr. Bolt is doing a fantastic job in terms of promoting the sport of track and field and, I could say, athletics in general. The young black swimmer, the first black woman to win a gold medal - you know, I sit back and I marvel about her because that was my idea as a young kid - 7, 8 years old - to go to Olympic Games as a swimmer - telling my dad I was going to be the first black swimmer to represent America.

But based on the color of my skin, that wasn't possible at that particular time. So for her to be there, it just bewilders me as to how much time is taken before we can see a black man or a black woman in the swimming pool and doing well to represent America. You know, racism and prejudice and bias is a very serious illness that we have in society that we need to doctor up and try and have these things resolved.

MONTAGNE: Would you imagine any of these young athletes that you're looking at raising a fist in protest in the way that you did?

CARLOS: You know, life is like a finger painting, you understand? Remember when you was in grade school and they give you a piece of paper and the paint and tell you to do your thing? Well, that's what everyone has to do is their thing. They can't do my thing. They have to do they own thing.

MONTAGNE: Well, Dr. Carlos, thank you very much for joining us.

CARLOS: Thank you so much. I might add, at the same time, the Olympic Games is still the greatest sporting spectacle in the world. And I would just hope that we would get to the point where we can resolve all of these social issues and political issues that we have. You know, you started out saying about a political statement. And, you know, people put emphasis on that we were the ones that brought politics to the Olympic Games. But I notice every time I see an athlete win, regardless of what nation it is, the first thing they do is throw a flag down to the kid. Is that not politics?

MONTAGNE: That was John Carlos, who won a bronze medal in the 1968 Olympics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.