Luke DeCock

Almost 50 years later, John Carlos’ protest still sets tone for athlete activism

From afar, John Carlos watched the Missouri football players last spring as they took a stand. He admired how they used their power as scholarship athletes to join the fight against what they saw as systemic racism on campus, eventually forcing the resignation of the university president.

He also has a message for them: Using their position to fight for the greater good can’t be a one-time thing. And Carlos would know because he has devoted his life to backing up the stand he took.

“I thought it was a very bold move,” Carlos said Friday. “It sent a statement that we’re not concerned about the powers that be in terms of threatening our scholarships or our association with the university. I think they took it upon themselves to say, ‘Man, we can put all that on the side because we’re concerned about humanity. We’re concerned about fair play and justice for all individuals.’

“The difference is with their situation and my situation, is that it was an overnight affair. It’s marked in time, but it doesn’t have the depth because it came and went so quick. My attitude is if you’re involved in civil justice or civil rights or civil activism, that’s a lifelong mission. It’s not a one-day or one-week or one-year situation.”

Almost 50 years after Carlos and Tommie Smith made what is still the most striking and charged political stand taken by athletes – shoeless, raising their gloved fists in the Black Power salute from the medal podium of the 200 meters in Mexico City in 1968 to protest racial discrimination in the United States, at a particularly heated moment in the civil rights movement – so much has changed.

And so much has not.

“I hate to use the old phrase, but we still have a long way to go,” Carlos said. “Sometimes you think racism and bias and prejudice has been suppressed. And then other times it’s like a lion just jumping out of a bush when you’re walking by, no growl, no roar, nothing, he’s just jumping all over you.”

Carlos, who won bronze in the 200 in 1968, was the keynote speaker Friday night at N.C. Central’s second annual track-and-field banquet honoring the late LeRoy Walker, a towering figure both at Central, in the world of track and field and in the Olympic movement. Carlos agreed to speak because of his respect for Walker, who died in 2012 and whose long, fruitful life culminated in his tenure as the first black president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Carlos remains an iconic figure at the intersection of sports and politics because the image of Smith and Carlos on the medal stand is still imbued with an inherent power 48 years later. It’s almost impossible now to comprehend the courage required to do that at that highly charged moment in time, let alone the widespread outrage and condemnation that followed.

Their stand set the tone for any number of instances where athletes used their position as a platform for their beliefs, from Muhammad Ali’s decision to go to jail rather than serve in Vietnam to the 1992 debate over the Black Cultural Center at the University of North Carolina, a heated campus discussion that eventually turned through the intervention of several football players.

The situation at Missouri last year saw athletes use their position to similar effect, and there figures to be more of that as college athletes start to realize their true power at a time when the entire exploitative structure of collegiate athletics is rightfully under attack. Professional players already have let their influence be felt, like NBA players who insisted upon the removal of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

There will be costs; Carlos was suspended from the Olympic team and received death threats. Even the white Australian silver-medalist Peter Norman was ostracized for supporting Carlos and Smith. In many ways, that moment on the medal stand set the tone for the rest of Carlos’ life.

“If you feel conviction enough that you’re willing to sacrifice to make change for all people, you realize that once you jump in, you’re there until the end of the race,” Carlos said.

It’s been a long time since Carlos ran in the Olympics, but he’s still running that race, almost 50 years later.