Olympic medalist John Carlos

The controversial athlete explains why politics has an undeniable place in the Olympic Games and discusses his Black power salute after his ’68 medal-winning performance.

U.S. Track and Field Hall of Famer John Carlos made global headlines at the '68 Olympics in Mexico City—not as much for winning the 200 meters bronze medal, but for his part in a controversial protest during the medal ceremony. The Harlem native went on to play pro football, become involved with the U.S. Olympic Committee and help organize the '84 Summer Olympics. The lifelong activist is a counselor and track and field coach at a Palm Springs. CA high school and, in his book, The John Carlos Story, recounts the lingering effects of his show of defiance.


Tavis: John Carlos provided the world with one of the most iconic images of the 1960s with his Black Power salute after a medal-winning performance at the 1968 summer games.

He has spent much of his life since that time as a dedicated human rights advocate and public speaker, and he is out now with a wonderful new text; a memoir, in fact. It’s called “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World.” John Carlos, sir, an absolute honor to have you on this program.

John Carlos: Thank you, Mr. Smiley; it’s an honor to be here.

Tavis: Good to see you, and a wonderful foreword by my friend Dr. West was beautiful.

Carlos: Hey, that was like a godsend. Dr. West is a godsend to me, and I’m just so appreciative to the kind things he had to say.

Tavis: Yeah, he had a lot of kind things to say. Let me jump to the end, then I’ll come back to the beginning.

Carlos: Sure.

Tavis: When one reads this book, one is left – at least I was – this one person was left with this basic question, which is whether or not after all you have had to endure, was it worth it?

Carlos: Well, let me just say I wouldn’t add nor take away anything. I would do it again tomorrow if it was necessary. It was very much worth it. If we enhanced the lives of just one individual, it’s far worth the ordeal.

Tavis: You said you would do it again tomorrow if it was necessary. What made this moment necessary in 1968?

Carlos: Well, as a kid growing up and seeing so much strife taking place in society, and particularly on Blacks and people of color, I had an opportunity as a young man to witness the change that was taking place in Harlem, the exodus of white folks leaving Harlem, which I thought was a very cohesive situation. But they felt that they needed to leave.

Becoming involved in sports and traveling the world and seeing how people of color were treated around the world, and America being such a great nation, probably the greatest nation in the world, I think that the thing that would destroy this nation more than anything is the inequality that we have amongst people of color.

Tavis: Speaking of inequality, one forgets this until one, again, gets into your text. We focus on the salute and on the black glove. What we never talk about are the beads, the bare feet. Walk me through the symbolic parts of the attire that you had on that day.

Carlos: Well, let’s start with the black glove. We felt it necessary being the fact that the Olympic Games, for the first time ever, had been televised worldwide. The second thing is the fact that it was in Technicolor. Never had the games been shown in color before.

We wanted it to be understood that we were representing America, but we were representing Black America in particular, so that’s why we put the black glove on. The beads around my neck indicated that there were so many Blacks throughout the history of this country that have been maimed and killed by way of hangings.

Then the black socks emphasized the fact that we had so many Blacks and people of color here in the United States, the greatest country in the world, that was running around in poverty every day, so we wanted to illustrate the fact that these individuals did not have shoes and they had to walk 20 miles to and from school every day with no shoes in the greatest country in the world.

We wanted to bring attention to the fact that we had so many deals taking place that we could have made change for the better for all people, and we felt that we would be a catalyst to bring this to attention to society.

Tavis: To those folk, John, who thought then and still think now that the Olympic Games is no place for political statements, your response is what?

Carlos: Well, I think the Olympic Games have been married to political statements. If I go back to Berlin in 1936, it was very politically orientated then, just with the Nazis, taking place relative to Mr. Brundage and so forth. There was political endeavors then.

Then if you look at the Olympic Games as a whole, if we would say we didn’t want to interject politics into the games, then why are we using nation’s flags? Why don’t we use one Olympic flag to encompass all the Olympians, as opposed to being separatists in terms of China versus Russia or Russia versus the United States? Why don’t we just say man versus man?

Tavis: How were you treated – you go into this, of course, in the book in detail. But for the audience, how were you treated, or more accurately, maltreated, when you got back to the country?

Carlos: Well, it was like when we went to Mexico City it was sun and shining and bright. When we came home it was chaotic and storms everywhere. I think the most devastating thing was to make the adjustment as to why so many individuals that you grew up with in the sport thought it necessary to turn their backs and walk away from you.

It took some time for us to realize that they didn’t particularly say they didn’t like us or have the love for us that they had in the past, nor the respect. I think they chose to leave based on the fact that they felt a reprisal for being associated or having a friendship with John Carlos or Tommie Smith, or Peter Norman, for that matter.

Tavis: I’m going to come to Peter in just a second. It’s a name that most folk don’t know. We’ll get back to Peter in just a second. You mention all the folk who walked away from you, and I know that had to be painful, but there were a lot of folk who stood with you, some big-name folk.

Every major Negro athlete of the day, from Ali to Jim Brown to Bill Russell to Kareem Abdul Jabbar to Dr. King, of course, no athlete, but there were a lot of folk who were sympathetic to your cause.

Carlos: Well, there was many folks that were sympathetic to the cause but yet still you take into account that Tommie Smith and John Carlos, we weren’t recognized for our deeds throughout the media in the United States, and those that supported us, they never got a voice.

Those figures such as the individuals you just mentioned, Muhammad Ali, the Jim Browns, the Bill Russells, Kareem, these individuals supported us, but yet still, when you sit back and say the coverage that was done relative to their support was very shallow.

They blocked their support of us. But those individuals were old enough, they were wise enough, and they knew their history and this is why they came out in support of us, because they knew that we had our finger on the right move.

Tavis: You mentioned the name Peter Norman, and I must honestly admit that name had escaped me for years. So the one thing I do want to thank you for is bringing back to our remembrance who Peter Norman really was, what his contribution was, the way he suffered and the indignity with which he died, quite frankly, many years later. Tell us who Peter Norman was.

Carlos: Well, Peter Norman’s a man’s man. Peter Norman is a humanitarian, and I say “is” because in my life, Peter Norman is never deceased. He’s always going to live with me.

But he was a man of principle and pride, had a strong moral character. He was born and raised under the auspices of his mom and dad being involved in the Salvation Army. He believed in humanity. At all costs, he believed in humanity.

I’m sure there was people in Australia that told Peter Norman that hey, man, you shouldn’t have done what you did, you shouldn’t have gotten involved in those individuals, it wasn’t your business.

But yet and still, Peter Norman took into account that the aboriginals were suffering just as much in Australia as Blacks in the United States were suffering. He took a stance as a man, and the greatest thing about Peter Norman is when you sit back and think about Tommie Smith and John Carlos here in America, they could go beat up on Tommie Smith and get tired of beating up on him and go to the other side of town and find John Carlos and beat up on him, but when Peter Norman left and went to Australia, there was no switch-off on Peter.

They beat Peter from sunup to sundown. But the end result, Peter never denounced us, he never turned his back on us, he never walked away from us, he never said one thing against what he stood for in Mexico City, and that was freedom, justice and equality for all God’s people.

Tavis: Jose, put up the picture of the stand in Mexico City once again for all – there you go. For all the talk about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, what John did not say, because he’s such a good friend, he jumped right into it, Peter Norman is the third guy, the other medalist on the stand who was a friend to John and to Tommie, and as you just heard John say, went through in Australia all that he went through for standing with them and the hell that he caught for the rest of his life. He died what year, John?

Carlos: He actually died, mm –

Tavis: 2004, 2006?

Carlos: – I’d say 2004, I think it was.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. You were a pallbearer? Honorary pallbearer?

Carlos: No, sorry, he actually died in 2005, the year after those games.

Tavis: Right, right.

Carlos: Yeah. Yes, I was a pallbearer. I felt, when I got the call that Peter had died, I didn’t have any bank account, but I felt I needed to start walking then because there was no way in the world I would miss Peter Norman’s service.

Tavis: What did Peter say to you and to Tommie in the moments after, the days after that incident, where he was the third man, the white guy, on the stand?

Carlos: Well, I think it’s something that we said collectively, in terms of the fact that we was getting ready to face probably the biggest storms of our life, and we had to stand strong for what we believe in and carry on the legacy we just laid down for society.

Tavis: Did he ever recuperate, recover from that in Australia for the rest of his life?

Carlos: Well, I think Peter Norman recuperated in the sense that people who knew who Peter Norman was, he built his character around the legacy of his family, in terms of what they taught him about equality and justice for all.

Peter never vacated from himself as to who he was. I think society had to grow up to the mentality of Peter Norman.

Tavis: We see today athletes who are as successful as you were come back home and make all kinds of money with endorsements and the like. Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen for you or Tommie Smith when you returned, but tell me about the economic struggle.

I worked for Tom Bradley when he was the mayor of this city and I was just a kid out of college, and I didn’t know the role that Tom Bradley played in your life, and there were many others. But you were economically destitute when you got back.

Carlos: Well, it’s amazing how it stands as well as any day when you have all your money that you have saved going out and you have nothing coming in. Fortunately for me, I was able to see the newspaper and saw that they were hiring in a new program called the Cedar Program, and I recall going to one of my Olympic buddies and saying, “Hey, man, this might be a shot in the arm for us. Let’s go down and apply for these Cedar jobs.”

I took a job as a gardener caretaker, and I remember being down in –

Tavis: A gardener caretaker?

Carlos: Yes, sir.

Tavis: This is an Olympic gold – you’re a gardener caretaker.

Carlos: Right. I had this experience this particular day, I was down there on my knees pulling weeds out the ground and I saw these big shoes walk up on me when I’m on the ground and he had red pants on, and I looked up and I saw this big, barreling belly and I couldn’t see who it was, and I had to roll back. When I looked, it was Rosie Grier dressed up as Santa Claus, (laughter) going to give the kids some good cheer for Christmas.

Rosie was amazed that I was on the ground, and he looked at me and he said, “John, what are you doing down there? What are you doing down there?” and I said, “Rosie, I have to do what I have to do to take care of my family.” He said, “You don’t have to do this.”

I said, “Rosie, I’m not too proud to do any job to support my family.” He told me, he said, “Well, listen, I want you to take this number and give a call to Mr. Tom Bradley Monday,” which I did. Rosie Grier was the springboard to the return of my life.

Tavis: Wow. You mentioned your family. You got married really young and one of the tragedies in this story is that your wife, you were separated at the time, but your wife, from all the stress and all the strain of what your family had to endure because of your courageous stand in Mexico City, took her own life at some point down the road. How do you process the pain that this brought down on your family?

Carlos: Well, it’s a pain that I live with every day of my life. When I close my eyes and reflect on that, I think about how beautiful my wife was as a person and such a caring person, and had a lot of concern about what we had to face as a family.

The government did a lot of things to us in terms of sending pictures to my house. If I had to go to a school to give a speech and the sorority wanted to sign a song, they would send (unintelligible) to my house and tell my wife that I had sex with this woman or that woman.

It got to the point where my wife didn’t know what to believe anymore, and the fact that I didn’t have a job, I couldn’t support my bills, the fact that I was getting ready to go through maybe a mental setback in terms of depression, we just had a tremendous amount of things on us.

My kids going to school and teachers denying my kids the grades that they should have once they found out that I was their father. So it’s many things that she had to deal with, and she got to the point where she didn’t know what to believe anymore and she just didn’t care to live her life anymore. I think it was devastating at that particular time, and it’s even more devastating today as we grow older.

Tavis: What’s the John Carlos story these days? How’s John Carlos doing these days?

Carlos: Well, God is good; I’m blessed every day, man. I’m strong. Like I tell everyone, I say the bottom line to my life is that I’ve gone through torments in my life, but it made me stronger. I haven’t lost my mind, I haven’t become a dope fiend, I’m not a drug pusher, I’m not a stick-up man.

I’m a man that has a vision as to how this world can be, and I’ve gathered myself through all the ordeals that I had to make me a well-rounded person and still fight for justice.

Tavis: He was a humanist then, he’s a humanist now, and to my mind John Carlos is an authentic American hero and it’s a powerful book, you’ll want to read it. It’s called, simply, “The John Carlos Story,” with a forward by Dr. Cornel West, co-written with a great writer named Dave Zirin, who I have great respect for. John Carlos, I love you and I’m honored to have you on this program.

Carlos: Tavis, I’m honored to be here. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.

Tavis: Good to have you here. You deserve it. You’ve earned it.

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Last modified: October 25, 2011 at 11:59 am