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Black Power To Black Lives Matter

Above: Extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, US athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner after while receiving their respective gold and bronze medals at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. (AP Photo)

Iconic Olympic athlete John Carlos: “The crisis that we have is far deeper than the eyes see.”

John Carlos spoke at a recent conference in Seattle: Black Power to Black Lives Matter. Carlos was part of one of the most iconic images for civil rights in the 1968 Olympics when he and Tommie Smith raised their fist in a symbol of what became known as a gesture for black power as they received their Olympic medals and turned to face the flag while the national anthem played. Smith had won the gold medal, and Carlos the bronze medal. Smith has explained that the raised fist was a salute to human rights. The two had run the 200 meter race, Smith with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos walking without their shoes on to highlight the poverty of African Americans.  Source Corbis.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos walking without their shoes on to highlight the poverty of African Americans. Source Corbis.

Dave Zirin, the political sportswriter journalist, introduced John Carlos, he says that “Dr. John Carlos represents tradition – ‘the world we live in means more than the medals on your chest or the rings on your fingers.’” Zirin believes the lesson of Carlos is one that “echoes through the ages,” it is a lesson of standing for something much bigger than your individual accomplishment, standing with the people.

He describes how Carlos and Smith were part of something bigger than themselves; they were part of the African American freedom struggle and they wanted the world to know where they stood. In fact, they walked to the podium without their shoes on, to demonstrate the poverty of African Americans in the United States. Smith showed his black pride by wearing a black scarf around his neck.  Carlos violated protocol by unzipping his tracksuit to wearing a black shirt underneath to show his solidarity with blue collar workers. He also wore a beaded necklace to highlight the lynching of black Americans.

The two US athletes were supported by the silver medal winner, Australian Peter Norman, who along with Smith and Carlos also wore a human rights badge on his jacket.

Both athletes paid a price for speaking out. The International Olympic Committee ordered both banished from the Olympic Village and suspended. When the US Olympic Committee refused to do so, they threatened to ban the entire US track and field team, leading the two athletes to being expelled from the games.  But that was not the end of it:

Smith and Carlos were largely ostracized by the U.S. sporting establishment and they were subject to criticism. Time magazine showed the five-ring Olympic logo with the words, “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier”, instead of “Faster, Higher, Stronger”.Back home, they were subject to abuse and they and their families received death threats.

Smith continued in athletics, playing in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals before becoming an assistant professor of physical education at Oberlin College. In 1995, he helped coach the U.S. team at the World Indoor Championships at Barcelona. In 1999 he was awarded the California Black Sportsman of the Millennium Award. He is now a public speaker.

In 2008, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were given the Authur Ashe Award for possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost. From
In 2008, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were given the Authur Ashe Award for possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost. From

Carlos’ career followed a similar path. He tied the 100 yard dash world record the following year. He later played in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles until a knee injury prematurely ended his career. He fell upon hard times in the late 1970s. In 1977, his ex-wife committed suicide, leading him to a period of depression. In 1982, Carlos was employed by the Organizing Committee for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles to promote the games and act as liaison with the city’s black community. In 1985, he became a track and field coach at Palm Springs High School. As of 2012, Carlos works as a counselor at the school.

Smith and Carlos received an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPY Awards honoring their action.

Zirin describes (his comments begin at 48.48 in the video below) how: “We are seeing athletes today standing with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. They are being criticized – not because they are political but because they are challenging the system. Resistance politics is what makes people skittish.”

He points out that the protests by athletes did not start with professionals, although many did join in, but started with Ariyana Smith a woman basketball player from Knox College, a small Division 3 school. Smith could not remain silent when her school traveled to play 30 minutes away from where Michael Brown was killed. She lay down for 4.5 minutes during national anthem to represent the four and a half hours that Brown was left in the street. She was initially suspended, then the suspension was revoked and then in the next game her teammates joined the protest. Zirin emphasizes how the “courage of black women is central to the #BlackLivesMatter movement – lots of black women are showing leadership, but also the mothers, daughters and sisters of those killed.”

Zirin describes a 1968 interview of Carlos where he was asked why did you do it? His answer still resonates; he said “we just want the opportunity to be treated like human beings.” Zirin says that “It is an overwhelming tragedy that 46 years later, this is still the question of the day. But it is also inspiring and nourishing that Dr. John Carlos has not given up that fight.”

John Carlos begins his speech humbly, thanking the audience for “letting me the 12th man on the team.” (See 56:47 in the video below) Throughout his speech, Carlos shows his excitement about what he is seeing with people standing up today.

Carlos begins by describing what happened just after his iconic gesture: “I knew you were there 46 years ago, even though you were just a dream in your mother’s eyes. When I came off the podium someone, probably from the CIA, said to me, ‘what did you accomplish, you disrespected the flag and nation.’ I told him that I beg to differ, my nation has disrespected me.  Furthermore, it is not only what is happening in my life, let’s wait for the next generation.”

Screenshot of John Carlos speaking in Seattle 2015.
Screenshot of John Carlos speaking in Seattle 2015.

Carlos describes how he did not come into the world to be an activist, but he realized early on that “I was born into this world just to be an activist.” He describes a scene from his childhood that began to unveil the injustice and inequality in the world saying:

“When I was kid – a cop with brand new blue uniform came out on a Saturday morning. The winos were sleeping on the island between two streets. There was a white and black wino was sleeping out there in the morning. The white cop goes up to the white individual. He bangs his stick on the ground. The white does not move. Then pokes him and says move on, move on. Then goes to the black fella, I assumed he would do the same thing, but instead he used his stick like a baseball back and walked to his feet and fired up his feet. The man levitated up and ran across the street almost killing himself. I asked my daddy – why? Daddy said, it’s hard to explain, but this was a good lesson to understand that all people are not treated the same.”

Carlos describes how that lit a fire in him. He saw how no one would stand up against the injustice he had seen.  As he grew up he saw how so many of his friends only had one parent. All the father’s suddenly disappeared, went to prison on drug charges as heroin was plentiful in the neighborhoods while jobs and opportunity were not. He saw how black men learned to disrespect themselves because of the lack of good paying jobs made it impossible for them to take care of their families, take his wife out to dinner or get shoes and clothes for his children. He said that every day these men looked in the mirror and gradually they learned not to like themselves.

He describes the terrible educational system in Harlem, where all the worse teachers were sent. Teachers who could not spell and therefore could not teach students to spell.  He saw how his friends did not have food in their refrigerators or freezers. He would bring them over to his house to get some food until his mother told they could not afford to feed the neighborhood. Yet, the poverty he saw still existed.

He knows this has been going on for a long time and he also knows there is a fear to stand up to it. There is a fear to stand up to what happens in their own neighborhoods, not just with police but with gangs and killings of each other. He realizes there are rogue police but there are also good police and that it is important for us to keep it in perspective or we go nowhere.

Carlos says people asking how after 46 years he continues to push forward on these issues, and describes how: The crisis that we have is far deeper than the eyes see.  Things are happening on both sides because of ignorance. A lot of the police do not know what they are doing. Racism is not how we are born. We are taught. White people are taught to stay away, fear and hate black people.  They know not what they do. He urged that “We have to set this nation on fire in terms of educational intensity.”

He noted how some of the previous speakers talked about capitalism in the United States. He said he was lucky to have been able to meet Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He told the audience that:

“Dr. King did not die because of his involvement in the civil rights movement; he died because he got involved in the economics of this country. All you young demonstrators here and from coast-to-coast – you are getting involved in the economics, getting involved in the numbers, when you block a freeway, Walmart does not get its truck with its deliveries; when you block the basketball arena, you are holding up the gate.”

He says “they can’t kill us all and that our protests will force them to reflect on how they can let some of some of the money.”

From Haymarket Books,
From Haymarket Books,

He urged the audience to tweet stars like Jay Z, Beyoncé and Oprah and tell them to contribute to the cause and get involved. “Oprah doesn’t need to tell us our people are not organized just to promote the movie Selma; she’s just trying to sell her movie. You’re doing a great job and will keep doing better.”

In the end, the stars and the athletes “all come back to the black neighborhood because they find out they do not have membership in the white club house.”

John Carlos and Dave Zirin have written a book “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World,” that tells the full story of Carlos and how that iconic moment impacted the world as well as his life. Carlos says the book will help “people know who they are and understand their responsibilities.”

The video of the full event is below. I recommend all of it as the speakers are excellent. The event was hosted by the Garfield H.S., Seattle, Black Student Union in Seattle. And, it was sponsored by the Seattle International Socialist Organization, Outside Agitators 206, Social Equality Educators, Women of Color for Systemic Change, Seattle Transit Riders Union, No New Jim Crow Coalition, Stand Against Foreclosures & Evictions (SAFE in Seattle).

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