John Carlos on His Fist-Raising Protest

This former Olympian recalls why he and teammate Tommie Smith donned black gloves at the 1968 Games.

John Carlos (Courtesy of Dave Zirin)
John Carlos (Courtesy of Dave Zirin)

(The Root) — There have been countless Olympic moments that are memorable because of sporting achievements, but one stands out for the political statement it made. After winning a respective gold and bronze medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 games in Mexico City, two American track stars — Tommie Smith and John Carlos — shocked the world when they bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists in the air while they stood on the victor’s podium. As the national anthem played, the runners’ symbolic gesture was a protest of the social inequality endured by blacks in America and an expression of solidarity with the world’s oppressed peoples.

According to Carlos’ biographer Dave Zirin, events around the world — from the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy to the war in Vietnam and the massacre of hundreds of Mexican students and workers — that year informed the runners’ demonstration. “For them it was a question of how could they not express themselves at that particular moment in time,” Zirin, who co-authored The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, told The Root.

In the run-up to the games, Smith and Carlos had joined the Olympic Project For Human Rights (OPHR), a group of black athletes led by San Jose State sociology professor Harry Edwards who were prepared to boycott the athletic event if authorities failed to meet certain demands. They wanted apartheid countries barred; they called for Muhammad Ali to have his boxing title restored. (It had been stripped away after his opposition to being drafted for the Vietnam War.) They also stood for hiring more African-American assistant coaches, but the most controversial stance was their demand that Avery Brundage, who had a history of being a fascist sympathizer, be removed as head of the International Olympic Committee.

Some of urgency of the boycott relented, however, when Olympic officials excluded South Africa and Rhodesia from the games. When The Root caught up with Carlos, 66, via phone recently, he said he still considered staying home. But it was probably one of the best and hardest decisions he made to eventually attend, win a bronze medal and make history in one of the most enduring images in sports history. Carlos, who once dreamed of being an Olympic swimmer before turning to track, recalled how important it was for a kid from Harlem to make a statement on the world stage, no matter how he was vilified for it at the time.

The Root: I read you first attended East Texas State but left after one year. When did you connect with professor Edwards and his OPHR movement?

John Carlos: I had been reading in Track and Field News about the Olympic Project for Human Rights since I was a student at East Texas State. Everything they were saying I agreed with. I’m saying to myself, these are the people I want to be affiliated with.

After leaving East Texas State, I was back in New York and I got a call from professor Harry Edwards, who invited me to a meeting at the Americana Hotel. In this meeting, Dr. King wanted to let professor Edwards, the SCLC and all those that were involved know that he was coming out in support of the Olympic boycott. After that, I got an offer from professor Edwards to matriculate at San Jose State.