John Carlos thought he had it made when he was awarded a full track and field scholarship in 1967 to attend East Texas State College. As he recalled, while in Toronto recently to promote his new book, “I wanted to make a good situation for my family.”
Things did not work out the way the star athlete envisaged. When the coach took aim at the 1967 Winnipeg Pan American Games 200-metre gold medalist, referring to him as “boy” or “that Negro feller” in front of his wife and little girl – he also tried to convince the Harlem-born sprinter that the reason Blacks are superior athletes is because they have extra bones in their body – the proud student-athlete decided he was not going to be target practice, even if it meant walking away from a scholarship.
Fed up and frustrated, he called Professor Harry Edwards – who, at the time, opposed the United States Olympic Committee, the political establishment and the mainstream media – complaining: “Can’t take the heat here, man. Don’t like the snubs, the restricted housing, the way they mistreat my wife, the whole phony deal.”
When Edwards asked him what he was going to do about it, Carlos replied: “Join a freedom movement somewhere, maybe.”
Carlos moved to San Jose State University where Edwards taught at the time and was instrumental in organizing the United Black Students for Action. He also co-founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), which advocated a boycott of the 1968 Mexico Olympics Games to highlight the injustices against Blacks and other minorities in the United States and other parts of the world.
While the boycott failed, Carlos headed to the Olympics and secured a bronze medal in the 200-metre event which was won by fellow American, Tommie Smith. On the medal stand, and in the world’s spotlight, Carlos and Smith raised their black-gloved fists as a show of solidarity with oppressed people worldwide.
Carlos said they wore black gloves to represent strength and unity and hanging beads around their necks to symbolize the history of lynching. They also chose not to wear shoes to symbolize the poverty that plagues Black America.
“Once we decided on the ‘symbology’, we had to figure out how to get our hands on the symbols,” Carlos writes in the book. “Fortunately, my wife Kim (she committed suicide four years after they broke up) had the beads and was down with our plan all the way.
“Tommie’s wife at the time had the black gloves. It’s an interesting detail of history that she had only brought the gloves to Mexico City because Tommie had told her if he had to shake the hand of Avery Brundage (the late International Olympic Committee president at the time), he didn’t want to have to touch the old man’s skin.
The fallout was immediate and extreme.
Kicked out of the Olympic Village and ridiculed in his own country as a traitor, Carlos was forced to beg, borrow and steal to provide for his family.
With no football experience he, however, landed a National Football League (NFL) job with the Philadelphia Eagles. When he suffered a serious leg injury, which affected his speed and subsequently activated his release, Carlos was offered an opportunity by then Montréal Alouettes general manager, J.I. Albrecht, to compete in the Canadian Football League (CFL).
That short-lived experiment lasted long enough for Carlos to secure Canadian citizenship for his family. But, without a job to support them, he reluctantly returned to the U.S. in search of meaningful employment.
A desperate Carlos tried in 1973 to resurrect his CFL career with Toronto, but a phone call one morning from his children indicated that things back home were not right. He immediately returned to find that his wife had moved out of the family home leaving him with just a bar stool and coffee pot.
Thirty eight years after hitting rock bottom, Carlos – the first athlete to run 100-metres in 9.9 secs. and the 200-metres in 20 secs. on the same day at the Indian Summer Games in Lake Tahoe, California in September 1969 – was back in Canada to promote The John Carlos Story.
“I have some warm memories of both Montreal and Toronto,” Carlos said during the Canadian launch which was hosted by All Balls Don’t Bounce – a local sports and entertainment media content collective – in collaboration with the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. “This book is a story of hope, laughs and challenges.”
He said he had a premonition at a young age of the events that unfolded at the 1968 Olympics.
“At age seven, I had a vision in which I saw myself standing on a box with my hand raised in front of a whole group of people applauding,” he said. “The next thing I knew, they were cussing and spitting at me and my happiness turned to anger. I remember telling my dad I was in a movie and something I did made the people become mad. Who would know that 15 years later, that vision would become a reality in Mexico City?”
Despite the hardships, Carlos never wavered from his stand against oppression and other forms of injustice.
“I am no different from anybody in this room,” said Carlos, who spoke and raised his fist at Occupy Wall Street last month. “All I want is a better standard of life.”
Carlos, whose mother was born in Jamaica and raised in Cuba before migrating to the United States, said growing up in Harlem provided him with fond memories of Malcolm X whose death, he said, weighed heavily on him for nearly 20 years.
Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965 as he prepared to address an audience at the Audubon Ballroom.
“Everything he was saying, I loved,” said Carlos. “When he came to 116th Street for the opening of a new Nation of Islam mosque, I sat in the front row. I just loved what he was saying and I asked if I could travel with him.
“The day he died, I was going for a driving test…I felt like if I was there, I would have done something to stop that person from killing him.”
Before concluding his first book launch outside the United States, Carlos had a message for young African-Canadian men in the audience.
“You have to take more responsibility for raising your children,” said the father of five. “Too many of you are missing in action and that is mainly responsible for the breakdown in the family unit.
“When I was young, our family sat at the dinner table in the evening and we talked about many relevant issues.”
The John Carlos Story is available at A Different Booklist, 746 Bathurst Street. The price is $25.50 plus tax.