(R-L) John Carlos and Tommie Smith accepting the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2008 ESPY Awards on July 16, 2008 in Los Angeles.
The Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 are best remembered not for amazing athletic achievements — although there were many — but for a silent protest on the podium.
On Oct. 16, 1968, after receiving gold and bronze medals for their finishes in the men’s 200-meter, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists. It became an enduring symbol of the civil rights movement.
Fifty-one years after this protest — and after Smith and Carlos were sent home from Mexico City for violating the Olympic Charter — both men are being inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame.
"FINALLY,” Dr. John Carlos wrote on his Facebook page soon after the announcement.
“Tommie and John’s induction into the (hall of fame) is just another gesture toward validating the perspectives we projected and were involved in generating half a century ago, and it’s about time,” said Dr. Harry Edwards, a professor emeritus who was instrumental in organizing the movement that led to the iconic gesture.
On the phone a couple of weeks after the announcement, Carlos was more introspective about the honor.
“Medals and applause and awards, I don’t really get turned on by those things, but I accept them primarily for the work of my mother, my father, my brothers and sisters, and my kids and my wife,” he said. “I accept these awards on their behalf because it’s been a long time coming, and they truly believe that I deserve it. I’m honored to be there, and I’m even more honored to know that they have an everlasting smile on their faces.”
Growing up in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Carlos credits his parents with instilling in him determination and a work ethic. But it took a local police officer to convince him to pursue track — “as more than just a game of chase with the neighborhood kids,” he wrote on his website. And it was track that made him appreciate education.
He earned a track scholarship to East Texas State University and in 1967, helped ETSU win the Lone Star Conference Championship.
That spring, back in New York, Carlos met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Reverend Andrew Young, and Dr. Edwards, then a charismatic sociology professor at San Jose State. Edwards convinced Carlos to transfer to San Jose State, which had one of the best sprinting programs in the country, with talented athletes like world record holder Tommie Smith, and had a campus of socially active students.
As the country boiled around them — 1968 being one of the most tumultuous years of the civil rights movement, with the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy, a civil rights supporter — the African American athletes at San Jose State followed the lead of Edwards, who organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
OPHR’s purpose was for the athletes to use their platform to model social change and protest racism and oppression around the world — to, as Edwards said by phone, show that “as a society, we are better than this; as a nation, our promise has to be more than this.”
“We weren’t a fly-by-night organization,” added Carlos. “We went to the library on a daily basis to research and study so when we were approached by media, when they stuck a mic in our faces, we didn’t want to be scratching our heads. We wanted to be able to elaborate on what we were doing, why we were doing it, and why it’s necessary to do what we’re doing.”
OPHR advocated that the African American athletes boycott the Games unless the International Olympic Committee met certain demands against worldwide racial oppression. In the end, the athletes decided not to boycott. Instead, they agreed to make individual gestures of protest if they made the Olympic podium in Mexico City.
The Games opened on Oct. 12, 1968, with the men’s 200 held four days later. Carlos and Smith both won their semifinal heats — Carlos finishing in 20.11, Smith in 20.13 despite straining a groin muscle. They would run the final in lanes 3 (Carlos) and 4 (Smith), assuming Smith could run.
Before the final, Carlos made a decision. He thought that the gold medal would mean more to Smith, who had doing everything he could to treat his strained muscle.
“The decision was that I didn’t need the gold medal,” Carlos said. “I didn’t go [to the Olympics] to win the gold, I just needed a medal.”
With a medal, Carlos would make the podium, and there, he could make a stand for racial equality and unity.
In the final, Carlos took the early lead. But then he felt his calves “pulling pretty hard,” he told reporters after the race. As Smith gained down the stretch, Carlos turned his head to the right. He wanted to see where his teammate was.
“I thought if he couldn’t have won it, I would have tried harder to take it,” he said at the time.
But Smith was on his way to winning. His long stride carried him across the finish line — arms outstretched — in 19.83 seconds, a new world record that stood for almost 11 years.
Australia’s Peter Norman nipped Carlos at the line for silver. With the bronze, Carlos had met his goal.
Before the awards ceremony, Carlos and Smith pulled various artifacts, such as beads, a black scarf and black gloves from their bags. Smith and Evans’ wives had purchased the gloves in case their husbands had to shake hands with IOC president Avery Brundage, reported LIFE Magazine (Nov. 1, 1968). Brundage supported policies and viewpoints that the African American athletes vehemently opposed.
“Roughly 10 to 15 minutes prior to us going out for the awards ceremony, we pretty much thought this is what we’re going to do and this is how we’re going to do it,” said Carlos. “So nobody on earth knew what was doing to go down with the exception of myself, Tommie Smith and Peter Norman.”
Smith wore the right glove, Carlos the left. And both men took off their shoes to represent the oppression of poverty. All three medalists, including Norman, wore OPHR buttons.
After the men received their medals, the national anthem began to play. Smith bowed his head and lifted his right fist, Carlos his left, a powerful stance against racial divides.
To Carlos, the scene brought to mind a vision he had had as a child. In that vision, he was in a field or park, and everyone around was celebrating. But Carlos did not know what he had done to deserve the applause. As he raised his hand to wave, “all the happiness and joy turned to anger and venom.”
“That’s exactly what happened in Mexico City,” he said.
He also thought about advice from his father, who told his son to always stand up for what is right. Carlos was not concerned about what would happen to him because of the protest; he was concerned for the future of his five kids, most of whom were not born yet.
“I had a concern to make a better place, a better world for them than it was for my father,” he said.
Two days after the race, the IOC pressured the then-United States Olympic Committee to send home Smith and Carlos. Their podium protest was — and still is — a violation of the Olympic Charter.
While their gesture became an iconic symbol of the civil rights movement, it did not sit well with many Americans back home. Reporters wrongly and unfairly referred to the men as black militants, and the men received death threats and hate mail. They also lost opportunities to capitalize on their Olympic medals.
All Carlos and Smith could do was move forward. Carlos returned to San Jose State for his senior year, winning the 100-, 220- and 4x100-yard at the 1969 NCAA Championships and helping the Spartans take the team title.
After college, Carlos played football for the Philadelphia Eagles and Canadian Football League. He also worked for Puma, the USOC, and in 1984, the Los Angeles Organizing Committee.
A year later, he was hired as a counselor and track coach for Palm Springs High School in California, a job he held until his retirement in 2015. The position was a good fit for Carlos, who enjoys helping kids find themselves.
“They always came to me for advice long before they even knew who I was,” he said. “Once they found out my history, then it was like a carnival, you might say, a carnival of kids would come every day.”
In 2011, Carlos published his autobiography, “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed The World” (2011).
The highlights of Carlos’ career are not the jobs he held but the honors that he has received. In 2005, Carlos and Smith’s courageous stand was immortalized in a 22-foot statue erected at San Jose State; they also received honorary doctorates. And in 2008, at the ESPY Awards, Carlos and Smith accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
To Carlos, the awards have helped validate the stand that he and Smith took 51 years ago. They show that, “Hey man, you were right, we loved you then, we love you more now.”
Carlos lives outside Atlanta, and he continues to work for and speak about human rights.
“Just tell everyone I’m still full of love and still full of energy and direction,” he said. “And I would hope that everyone would look in the mirror and get in touch with the man or woman in the mirror and find out who you are. You can’t make changes until you know who you are.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.