John Carlos has been labeled a lot of things throughout his life. An Olympian. A hero. A troublemaker. An athlete. A husband. A father. A villain.
Fifty years ago on Oct. 16, Carlos and American track teammate Tommie Smith stood on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City following the 200-meter sprint. Carlos, who won the bronze, and Smith, who won gold, each had their heads bowed and a clenched fist covered in a black leather glove raised high in the sky.
Their protest of the civil and racial injustices in the United States and around the world is one of the most iconic images in sports history, let alone the 20th century.
Today, Carlos takes solace in knowing their fight continues with new figureheads: Colin Kaepernick, women’s rights activists, artists, musicians, Emma Gonzalez, athletes, celebrities, and students taking a stand against gun control.
“I like to use the metaphor that 50 years ago I was a gardener,” Carlos says. “I planted seeds in the Earth and watered it and what you see now are the fruits of my labor. Everyone has started to come into themselves and we might have laid the blueprint for that for them to spin off of.”
Carlos stood in a room at the Americano Hotel in New York City. He was invited to a meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which wanted to support the potential boycott of the upcoming 1968 Olympics.
Carlos, Smith, and other athletes were contemplating boycotting the Games in protest of racial segregation in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, as well as racism in sports as part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
It was at this meeting where Carlos was introduced to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He walked in and it was like God had walked in,” Carlos recalls.
The two spoke of the boycott and the repercussions. In the end, the athletes decided against it, realizing that if they elected to sit out, others would step into their place on Team USA and their message would be overlooked. Instead, the athletes would utilize the platform, literally, to bring awareness to their cause.
Colin Kaepernick rose to prominence in the NFL after coming off the bench to guide the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII. He followed that feat by leading the Niners to the 2013 NFC Championship the following year.
As he entered the 2016 season seemingly a forgotten man within the franchise – losing the starting job to Blaine Gabbert – it was what he did off the field that put him back in the spotlight. Ahead of a Week 3 preseason game, Kaepernick sat during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner in an effort to bring awareness to police brutality and social inequality that plagued the United States.
Kaepernick began kneeling during the anthem following a conversation with NFL player and ex-Green Beret Nate Boyer in an effort to show more respect to former and current military members.
“His thing wasn’t a fly-by-night situation, nor was ours 50 years ago,” Carlos says. “He studied the circumstances and devised a program to try to bring attention to the ills of society.”
Kaepernick, who opted out of his contract ahead of the 2017 season, remains a free agent; he filed a grievance against the NFL in October 2017 citing team owners colluded to keep him out of the league. Despite his absence in uniform, his message and actions have continued to grow. Other NFL players and professional and amateur athletes in various other sports have demonstrated during the anthem, whether through kneeling, sitting, interlocking arms, raising their fist or remaining in the locker room.
Since 2016, Kaepernick has become a polarizing figure in the world of sports, politics, and social activism. He’s donated $1 million to organizations working in oppressed communities, was named GQ’s 2017 “Citizen of the Year”, was honored with Sports Illustrated’s 2017 Muhammad Ali Legacy Award and the 2018 Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award, and most recently named the face of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.
“The first time we met [in November 2017], I let him know he was my hero,” Carlos says. “I also told him not to be concerned about football and wanting to come back and play. I told him, ‘You’re larger than football right now. Football will be passé one day, but you’ll still be etched in history. You’re greater than football now, so don’t even look to play. There are other things that will draw your attention that will be larger than football.’”
The demonstration during the 1968 Olympics by Smith and Carlos has often been mislabeled as pro-militant or pro-Black Power. The message displayed by NFL players Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Michael Bennett, Malcolm Jenkins, Kenny Stills, Marshawn Lynch, and countless others in recent years has also been misconstrued. These players are unjustly being labeled as “unpatriotic” with many claiming these demonstrations disrespect the flag, veterans and the United States. It’s even drawn the ire of President Donald Trump, who has been very outspoken, particularly on social media.
Carlos has had to deal with many negatives as a result of the message of his demonstration getting lost in translation. Friends began avoiding him, he struggled to find work, he was vilified by the press, his children were bullied at school, the FBI kept him under surveillance, and his first wife, Kim, took her own life.
Despite all of this, Carlos, 73, doesn’t regret his actions as he continues to be a social activist and public speaker. He urges anyone looking to get involved – no matter the cause – to make sure they are knowledgeable and well-versed in the issue they feel strongly about. Carlos also recommends aligning with others who believe in your cause, because a fist is stronger than a lone finger.
“I try to educate other people because I can’t blame somebody based on ignorance,” he says. “If you educate them and they still want to be that way, that’s on them. You have to sit them down and open up their brain. The demonstration Kaep and the demonstration I did was a litmus test for society. Hopefully it made [people] start to think about all the things they’re doing or the things they’re allowing to happen.”