Former U.S. track and field Olympian John Carlos spoke at the annual Pellom McDaniels Sports History Lecture Series on Feb. 20. (Jenna Daly/Managing Editor)

Former U.S. track and field Olympian John Carlos and Emory University Associate Professor of History Carl Suddler led a conversation about the 1968 Summer Olympics Black Power salute and emphasized the importance of Black unification on Feb. 20. The event was part of the annual Pellom McDaniels Sports History Lecture Series, held this year at the Joseph W. Jones Room in the Robert W. Woodruff Library in front of around 50 attendees.

Suddler asked Carlos when he first recognized he could “stand on business for his community,” and Carlos noted that he had a “vision” when he was seven or eight years old that closely paralleled his 1968 protest. In his vision, Carlos saw himself standing on a box in the middle of a stadium. He said the crowd cheered at first, but as he waved his left hand, “all the happiness instantaneously turned to venom and anger.”

At the collegiate level, Carlos competed for San Jose State University (SJSU) (Calif.). Harry Edwards, currently professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and a visiting professor at SJSU at the time, convinced Carlos to run for SJSU after telling him about the political activism present on campus. Carlos said that Edwards also invited him to a dinner with civil rights leaders such as Andrew Young and Martin Luther King Jr. in The Americana Inn in New York City. 

Edwards proposed a boycott to potential Black Olympians that would inspire U.S. sprinter and fellow activist Tommie Smith and Carlos’ idea to demonstrate at the games. The Olympics Project for Human Rights (OPHR), formed by Edwards, stipulated that Black athletes boycott the 1968 Olympics, which took place in Mexico City. OPHR posited banning South Africa and Rhodesia from Olympic competition, reinstating Muhammad Ali’s World Heavyweight Title, including more Black coaches on U.S. teams, boycotting New York Athletic Club and removing International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Avery Brundage, citing his racist and antisemitic past.

As the Olympics approached, OPHR athletes voted to compete in Mexico City but chose to use the global stage to call attention to discrimination within sports. For Carlos, participating in the Olympics meant much more than winning a medal.

“The race wasn’t even secondary to me,” Carlos said. “I wasn’t concerned about no gold medal, because I didn’t go to the Olympics for a gold medal — I went to the Olympics for a demonstration. I had to win a medal to do the demonstration.”

Carlos said Australian sprinter Peter Norman noticed that he and Smith were “ready to make a statement” while they were getting ready for the race.

“I said [to Norman], ‘Would you like to wear an Olympics Project for Human Rights button?’” Carlos said. “He started reaching trying to get mine, and I said, ‘Woah, chill — I’ll get you one.’”

Assuming he would finish second in the 200-meter dash, Carlos said he decided to let Smith win the gold medal because it “meant everything” to Smith. However, Carlos failed to notice Norman coming from behind, and so he finished third.

As the U.S. national anthem began to play at the medal ceremony, both Carlos and Smith bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists in the air. Smith raised his right fist, while Carlos raised his left. Smith’s wife had brought the gloves before the competition in anticipation of their podium finishes, and Carlos recalled that they were “ready for the occasion.”

While on the podium, Carlos and Smith took off their shoes to represent Black poverty. Carlos also wore a beaded necklace to represent lives lost to lynching. All three medalists, including Norman, wore OPHR medals to represent solidarity. Though their protest was broadly for human rights, the mistreatment of Black individuals in the United States also motivated them, Carlos said.

“I covered up the USA jersey because I was ashamed of America,” Carlos said. “How you be 23 years old and you tell America you are ashamed of them? I was ashamed of them, and I’m still kind of ashamed of them because they can do so much better would they have worked on it. [There is no need] for them to treat people the way they treat people. No need for it.”

Both Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their clenched fists on Oct. 16, 1968 during the Olympic medal ceremony at Mexico City. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Angelo Cozzi)

Carlos and Smith faced severe criticism after leaving the podium. The IOC gave them 48 hours to leave Mexico City and falsely reported that they had rescinded U.S. medals. Although Carlos and Smith received death threats from those whom their protests offended, Carlos said he found it hypocritical that the United States boasted their medal count.

“If you notice what they did to the medal count off top, they had Mr. Smith’s gold medal up there, and they had John Carlos’ bronze medal up there,” Carlos said. “Why would a medal still be there? Because the objective is to beat Russia, to beat Cuba, to beat Poland, to beat everybody else — and they couldn’t beat them if our medals weren’t there.”

The protest occurred during a tumultuous time in U.S. history, defined by wars and political assassinations. The Black Power salute was not the first protest displayed at the Olympics, but it has become one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century. The photograph of Carlos and Smith raising their fists in the air has become synonymous with modern activism.

Black athletes today, such as former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, have used their platforms to raise awareness for social justice. In reference to contemporary activism, Carlos said that athletes have a larger platform compared to when he competed due to  the increased accessibility of media. Carlos also urged current athletes to recognize their influence, use their platform and wealth to level the playing field and not forget their roots.

“I would tell [the athletes] to get in touch with who they are as a person,” Carlos said. “When they get in touch with themselves, they have to determine one thing: Have I lost consciousness of where I came from?”

While at the University of Delaware, Suddler said he “claimed” his dorm room by hanging up four posters featuring King, Ali and Malcolm X. The final poster featured an image of an Olympic podium. 

“I remember vividly everyday walking out of my dorm room as a college freshman looking at that poster, realizing the courage that it took to take that stand,” Suddler said.

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Clement Lee (he/him) (24Ox) is from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and is on the pre-BBA track. Outside the Wheel, Clement can be found reading new books or going on long runs in the woods.