This article 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC – 10.01.11
It is one of the most dramatic, revolutionary pictures of all-time. Two young black men, just moments removed from winning track medals in the 1968 Olympics, standing on the medal-platform, heads down, a single back-gloved fist raised in the air in silent protest.
And tonight, 43 years later, John Carlos, one of those historic figures, appeared at the Busboys and Poets bookstore along with sports writer Dave Zirin,to discuss the book The John Carlos Story they had co-written.
In a lengthy, highly entertaining, often hilarious monologue, Carlos detailed his life which led him from the streets of Harlem to his historic moment in Mexico. Initially, he said, there has been much discussion of a boycott of the 1968 games by black American athletes to protest conditions for blacks here and in white-dominated African countries.
That boycott was to receive full support from Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, Carlos said he had a chance to meet with King, who was then embroiled in a trashmen’s dispute in Memphis, and asked him why, with death threats escalating, he continued his crusade.
Carlos said Dr. King very simply told him: “John, I have to go back to stand for those who won’t stand
for themselves and I have to go back to stand for those who can’t stand for themselves.”
Within months, Dr. King was assassinated and the boycott idea was dead. However, Carlos and his running mate Tommie Smith vowed to take some kind of a stand. And so, when Smith finished 1st and Carlos 3rd in the 200, an eternal visual symbol of protest came to be.
Interestingly, while all the focus was on the gloved raised fists, there were other aspects of the protest. Both athletes wore necklaces for lynchings of blacks in the South and stepped up to the podium without shoes to call attention to the plight of the poor. Carlos further left his track suit unzipped in a sign of solidarity with oppressed workers.
Zirin, who is one of the most socially conscious sports writers in America today, said he had 2 major questions when he and Carlos started the book. The first was – why did you risk what you did? (and indeed the fallout was nasty and long-lasting). Zirin indicated that perhaps the answer to that could best be explained in a quote on the front cover of the book:”How can you ask someone to live in the world and not have something to say about injustice?”
The second, and perhaps even more important question, Zirin said is – why does what Carlos did still seem to matter so much and resonate so loudly? “We still have injustice today and it’s still important for people to take a stand. John did that. And he paid for his stand, but he says he really had no other choice – it was the right thing to do,” Zirin said.