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.
John Lewis was the greatest American I ever got to meet and talk to in person. He was often at the Newseum when I led tours there. He was courageous and kind, both at a national level and a personal level.
When he found out our grandchildren were then living in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody, he offered to take them down to the House floor and show them how voting there worked. It was an offer from the heart, since neither Judy nor I or Michael nor Shannon could vote for him.
All of us who care about the America John Lewis believed in and was jailed and beaten for, need to rededicate ourselves to continuing his battle to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
What a great role model he was and what a great motto he left us — find a way to make a way out of no way.
He had a wonderful sense of humor, too. This is a paraphrase of a story I heard him say several times:“When I was young, I wanted to be a preacher. So I would get my brothers and sisters to round up all our chickens and I would get up on a big box and preach to them,You know what — those chickens never listened to a word I said. I wasn’t happy then, but it did prepare me for today — those Republicans in Congress don’t listen to a thing I say either”.
Goodbye, Congressman Lewis. You were the youngest speaker (at age 23) at the 1965 March on Washington and the last living on-stage-that-day link to Dr. Martin Luther Jr. and his resoundingly notable “I Have a Dream” speech.
You will be missed but you inspired so many that you will never be forgotten and your work will never be forsaken.
I began my political activism – or, translating that into the parlance of today became woke – in 1968 in my then-conservative hometown of Bridgeton in rural southern New Jersey. One year later, I not only continued that local activism, but expanded my protesting to include the Villanova University campus where I was enrolled as a college student and, periodically through the year and the early years of the decade to follow, at various sites in Washington, DC.
The act of protesting itself and contact with my fellow protesters, most of whom were then older, taught me much about life. For example, it was in the nation’s capital where I was first tear gassed. And where I was first maced. I was spit on and pushed by counter protesters and chased by law enforcement many times. As an activist, I was arrested, harassed, and detained on occasion. I had a policeman in full riot gear place the barrel of a shotgun against the side of my neck and scream “I told you. Shut the fuck up”. I took his advice in the short term and shut up. But after being released from jail the next morning, I resumed my protesting.
From 1974 to 2011, I continued protesting injustice, but almost all of it was done in a much different way — first as a newspaper reporter and then as an educator in poverty-plagued urban school systems. When my wife and I retired, we moved to Crystal City, Virginia, which is only 3 Metro stops from Washington, DC, meaning I could again protest, rally, and march in the nation’s capital. I worked with and aided Occupy Washington. I marched for gay rights, same sex marriage, Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, and science and the environment and I marched against corporate greed, the blood-drenched NRA, and the senseless slaughter of our students in their schools. On 2 occasions, I actually had a chance to speak directly to Donald Trump outside the White House with Kremlin Annex, a group who held nightly rallies opposing the current temporary resident living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Of course, Trump probably didn’t hear me because he was inspecting his White House bunker, watching Fox Fake News with the sound turned up, or tweeting in bed with a cheeseburger on his lap.
Today, another massive rally was scheduled for Washington, DC for many of the causes I believe in, but for the first time since we have been in the DC area, I was not participating.
There were several reasons for my decision. And in the spirit of all those radicals from the 20s and 30s who were kind enough to share their wisdom and experience with me, I would like to offer the same to the young protesters of today, who someday will find themselves old.
If I had to describe myself politically now, I would say I am an uber-liberal, a former radical now tempered by reality and age. I still realize that America faces serious threats to its survival, many of them like racism, class, and income equality carried over from our ’60s days of rage. We also now have the specter of worldwide climate change and global warming which portend the end of life as we know it. And, as the proverbial cherry on the top of this melting poisonous spoiled-ice-cream-mountain-mess of destruction, we also have a coronavirus pandemic which has already taken more than 100,000 American lives and is still with us.
All these deadly threats are compounded by the fact that we are being led (or not being led depending on your personal view) by Donald J. Trump, already identified by historians as the worst of the 45 American presidents.
The realist in me has prioritized that the one thing I can most readily change to help the future is to keep Donald Trump from achieving a second term as president. That is the main reason I chose not to take to the DC streets today. In order to continue working against Trump from now until Election Day and then casting my vote for the person I believe has the best chance of defeating him, I must be alive. As a person in the prime age for COVID0-19, I don’t think the best place for me right now is surrounded by thousands of people, making social distancing impossible.
In addition, neither protesting or the activist skills I now possess are the same as when I first began my activism in the ’60s. While huge protests still prove a point, with the 24-hour news cycle, cable TV, and ubiquitous social media, all protests, not just those in Washington, DC, now find their way onto personal screens everywhere, making the days of huge solidifying marches not as necessary to show the volume of support. In addition, as a writer who uses social media, I have more opportunity there not only to have my face seen and my body counted, but my words can reach far more people than ever before. I also appear on live shows dealing with politics and was scheduled to be on one shared on YouTube, Facebook, and Periscope at the same time I would have been at the DC rally.
But that does not mean I was comfortable staying home, no mater how much work for the cause I felt I was doing.
In a way, I guess it’s analogous to the professional athlete who has reached the end of his on-field playing career and now realizes he can best help his team by managing or coaching from the sidelines. Of course, you miss the thrill that only happens on the field, but you come to understand you can still be a crucial component of any team victory.
So for all the young protesters out there today in DC or anywhere else where I can’t be in upcoming days, here’s some advice:
If you are protesting for any cause that Donald Trump is opposing, don’t have second thoughts about if you are right. One of the few constants in life is that Trump is always on the wrong side of what is good.
Do not be discouraged for long (although there will be many times when you want to abandon the cause). Major lasting change does not happen overnight. It might not even happen in your lifetime. But if you truly believe in something, fighting for it gives your own life meaning and the fight itself should be viewed as its own reward.
Out in the streets today, keep in mind that you should keep using safety recommendations to avoid contacting the virus — wear a mask, try to keep a physical distance of 6 feet from any sustained personal contact, keep hydrated, etc., — and if you feel any signs of illness, immediately remove yourself from the protest and seek immediate medical attention.
Be sure to be vigilant and survive all encounters with law enforcement. The cause does not need more martyrs. Tragically, we have too many of them. The passion and commitment you demonstrate by participating in the street is powerful and worthy of great praise, but we need your vote in November to defeat Trump. Then we can move to the next steps to resolve the myriad of problems Trump’s abysmal four-year presidency has only exacerbated.
Keep in mind that any sustained action calling for systemic change requires both protesters of the school of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (peaceful, nonviolent) and those who would have followed Malcolm X (by any means necessary). There is place for everyone in a revolution.
Do not expect any immediate results from your protesting. Right now, we are simply calling attention to problems in such a way that they become impossible for others to ignore. If you are committed for the long haul, there will be much more to do for you and all those standing (or sitting, or kneeling, or lying on the ground) next to you now.
Finally, it is hard for so many of us to breathe right now. For some groups, it has been hard for their members to breathe for centuries. But just because something has been, does not mean it must always be. Change can happen. But it takes a whole lot of dedication, work, resilience, and most all of hope. Please, whatever else you do, do not give up hope. For hope, coupled with action, is always the strongest activist weapon of all.