48 Years Later, Olympian John Carlos Reflects on His Iconic Black Power Salute

Read more

In a year defined by a massacre in Mexico City, civil rights mobilization across the United States, and protests and revolutions in Europe, John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympic Games is among the most important things to take place in 1968. Carlos – whose mother was born in Cuba – called for a boycott of the Mexico City Olympics over the lack of black coaches at the games, but when that didn’t work, he still made a statement. After winning bronze, he and Smith took politics to the podium and walked onto the track in black socks before raising their black-gloved fists in the air in a gesture that scandalized the world. The backlash was swift, with Smith and Carlos receiving suspensions from the U.S. team and death threats from angry spectators.

Though Carlos made history, four teenage students he once had to chase after – and who only knew him as their school’s counselor – had no idea of his activist past. And really, neither did many others in the life he made for himself after the Olympics. Ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, Carlos wrote a first-person account for Vox about how raising his fist at the games changed his life. Here are five interesting things we learned:


The mood in the stadium immediately changed as he lifted his fist.

Carlos said that it didn’t matter where someone came from, as soon as he and Smith raised their hands, people had never seen anything like it, and their reactions showed it. “As soon as we raised our hands, it’s like somebody hit a switch,” he wrote. “The mood in the stadium went straight to venom. Within days, Tommie and I were suspended from the US Olympic team and had to leave Mexico City early.”


His life was hell for 10 years.

Anna Harris/Vox

Standing up for what’s right had long-lasting effects, starting with people walking out of his life. But he doesn’t begrudge them. He explains that it’s not that people stopped feeling love for him; it’s that people were frightened to receive the same negative attention. After all, that’s what happened to his wife and children.

“The first 10 years after those Olympics were hell for me…” he said. “My wife and kids were tormented. I was strong enough to deal with whatever people threw at me, because this is the life I’d signed up for. But not my family. My marriage crumbled. I got divorced. It was like the Terminator coming and shooting one of his ray guns through my suit of armor.”


He wants more black celebrities to be activists.

Kevin Winter/Getty

Recently, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Lebron James opened the 2016 ESPY Awards with a speech on the disproportionate violence toward the black community. And though one of the biggest athletes in the world, Muhammad Ali, set an example by constantly speaking out against societal injustices, Carlos is frustrated that today’s stars don’t speak out.

“And so I’m really frustrated with a lot of today’s stars, who have an opportunity to speak up but don’t,” he wrote. “They think they’re secure in their little bubbles of fame and wealth. They think racism and prejudice can’t touch them because they’ve achieved a certain level of success. I want to tell them, ‘Your mother’s not secure in that bubble. She doesn’t have a tattoo on her forehead that says she’s part of your lineage. Your son is not secure. Your daughter is not secure. Your father is not secure. The kids you grew up with are not secure.”

He used Deion Sanders’ son, who had the cops called on him for trying to use a credit card to buy fast food, as an example that celebrities’ loved ones aren’t protected from racism.


Despite everything, he'd go back and raise his fist again.

Life got tough for Carlos, and still he wouldn’t change anything about it. He’s never apologized for the black power fist before, and he still won’t. “That picture of me and Tommie on the podium is the modern-day Mona Lisa – a universal image that everyone wants to see and everyone wants to be related to in one way or another. And do you know why? Because we were standing for something. We were standing for humanity.”


He was just a footnote in history books.

When he worked as a school counselor in Southern California, he caught a few kids trying to cut school. He chased after them, and unbeknownst to them, kept up with them because of his elite running background. When they questioned his identity, he told them that maybe if they’d attended classes, they’d learn who he was.

“A year later the very same kids came to me with a history book,” he said. “They said, ‘Man, we see this picture in the history book and they don’t have any story about it. It’s just a two-liner with the people’s names. We see this guy with your name. Were you in the Olympics?'”

Instead of just giving them the answer, he challenged them to do a little research on him.

Read the entire piece over at Vox.