The image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos is famous around the world.
At the 1968 Olympics the two black athletes won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 metres. As the US national anthem played, they hung their heads and raised black gloved fists.
John has said that his life has never been about winning medals, and he regards himself as “a freedom fighter.”
John was a campaigner. “For two and a half years we had fought for an Olympic boycott,” he told Socialist Worker. They wanted a boycott because of racism in sport which was unchallenged by the Olympics.
“But many were not prepared to sacrifice their 15 minutes in the sun. We had a vote in the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) and it went to go to the games.
“I wasn’t happy with that and at first I was going to stay home.
“Then I thought, ‘If I stay home someone will go and win a medal, but they won’t represent my views the way I think they need to be represented.’
“Through the heats I still had on my mind that some statement needed to be made to show we had a social and humanitarian problem in society. We had to face up to it and deal with it.
“So I went up to Tommie and said, ‘I’m disenchanted that the boycott has been called off and I want to make a statement. What’s your take on it?’ He said, ‘Man, I want to make a statement too’.”
John recalls, “We had one more step to go—we had to win the right to be on the victory stand. We went through hell and high water to be in the final and then we had to be one of the top three.
“After the race we had about 25 minutes to evaluate what we would like to do. How we were going to use the gloves, what the scarf around Mr Smith’s neck meant and why I wore the black jersey over my USA uniform.”
John has explained elsewhere that, “The beads were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage. All that was in my mind.”
The silver medallist Peter Norman, an Australian, supported them. John said, “I approached Mr Norman and asked him did he believe in human rights. He said of course he believed in human rights.” Peter wore an OPHR badge as he stood on the podium.
“So there you have it! We went to the victory stand and presented our message to society.”
'We were ostracised by the sporting establishment'
Today the image of John and Tommie’s protest is iconic. But at the time they were sent home by the Olympic officials and attacked in the media. They faced death threats.
Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage blamed them for bringing politics into the world of sport. This still angers John.
He says, “Athletics and politics are intertwined. It was political when they went to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. It was political when they decided to leave Jewish athletes out of the team because they didn’t want to offend Hitler.
“People had seen me running all over Europe with USA written on my chest. They thought that meant that everything was OK for people of colour in the United States. So I talked about the social problems we need to deal with and all of a sudden I’m a bad guy.
“We were ostracised by the sporting establishment, big business and the government.
“People I thought were friends walked away. Some said, ‘Man you’ve screwed up your life. You’ll never get another shot.’
“As a kid God told me to stand firm to what you believe in and that’s what I’ve done all my life.”
The 1968 Olympics took place in the face of protests and state murder.
John didn’t know about the massacre when he made his protest. He says, “We knew there was a student movement and we had been in touch with its leaders, but we didn’t know about all those young students who had lost their lives.
“If people today have a passion for their people like I did, they should step up against the norm and speak the truth. They have to have guts to do that.”
John was cheered at Monday’s meeting when he told the audience that there was one thing they can learn from him: “I am not afraid to offend my oppressor.”
The John Carlos Story by John Carlos and Dave Zirin, £16.99. Offer: £13 from Bookmarks until the end of May. www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
John Carlos spoke at a meeting in London Olympic icon John Carlos electrifies packed meeting
For a video of the meeting visit the SWP TV Youtube channel