Carlos talks Olympics protest, Kaepernick meeting

50 years ago last Tuesday, John Carlos and Tommie Smith stepped to the podium after winning gold and bronze in the 200-meter dash, flanked by Australian sprinter Peter Newman during the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics.

As the national anthem began to play, both athletes lowered their head. Smith and Carlos both raised their fists with black gloves on to protest the mistreatment of African Americans just six months after civil rights figurehead Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Carlos addressed a crowd of over 100 people at the Parkway Ballroom on Saturday afternoon as part of the “Raise a Fist. Take a Knee” discussion put on by the Friends of Track and Field reflecting on what message he wanted to send, what life was like after and his relationship with Colin Kaepernick, who has been blackballed from the NFL since he protested during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality.

Each article of clothing the athletes chose to wear represented a message they intended pass along about an issue they wanted to address.

“Tommie Smith had a black scarf on his neck. The black scarf was meant to represent black pride,” Carlos said. “I had beads on my neck to represent the lynchings taking place during my life, before my life and currently in my life. They’re still lynching black people. And then you sit back and say, ‘well what else did you have on?’ I had a black shirt on, why did I have a black shirt on? Because I was ashamed of America, I didn’t want them to see no USA on my chest I thought America could do better and they can do better now. I was ashamed of that, I didn’t want that to be on my chest.”

While Smith and Norman stood on the podium with their jackets zipped up, Carlos kept his unzipped to honors his parents, who he said had never received the respect they deserved.

“And then they said, ‘well how come Mr. Smith and Norman are dressed in protocol and you look like you just got out of bed? I said, ‘well I thought of my mother and father as blue-collar workers in this country that never got the respect that they were due even to this day so when I went up there I represented them and other blue-collar workers that make this country run.”

The two also walked out to the podium in black socks and no shoes to represent those African American children they say had to sometimes walk 20 miles to school while other major plans were being talked about such as how to send a space shuttle to the moon, but no attention was being paid to improve the infrastructure in many black communities.

Following the protests by Smith and Carlos, the country was sent into a frenzy as both athletes were suspended from the U.S. track team and given 24 hours by the U.S Olympic Committee to leave Mexico City. Both were also instructed to return their medals despite the fact other white athletes protested as well, but did not receive similar backlash. The two were ultimately allowed to keep their medals but Carlos said the road was not easy for many years after.

“When I went to Mexico City the sun was shining bright,” Carlos said. “When we came home from Mexico it was stormy weather. It was stormy weather in the sense that there were so many black people that were extraordinarily proud of what they saw, the other side of town wasn’t as excited about what they saw.”

Fred Mitchell, a DePaul journalism professor who was entering his senior year in 1968 as a track athlete, said the protest caught people back home by surprise, although there was a lot happening with the Vietnam War, social unrest inside the U.S to go along with the assassinations of multiple influential figures in King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy. Mitchell said he response by the USOC, was a disappointing felt for multiple decades.

“You had social unrest within the United States, you had the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, so there was a lot of protesting going on anyway. But to see this happen during the Olympic ceremony was very stunning. As far as the reaction the way the United States Olympic Committee overreaction was disappointing to a lot of people the fact that they were treated like pariahs and sent home and basically disgraced.”

Carlos admitted life after the games was filled with frustration as he fought to provide for his family bouncing from job to job including a brief stint in professional football. After moving away from his football aspirations, that also included one season in the Canadian Football League, Carlos admitted he struggled to keep a job as his name followed him.

That same battle with his name has followed Kaepernick, and when the two met in 2017 in a New York hotel, Carlos opened by praising the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback before giving him an idea of what’s to come.

“The first thing I said to him was, ‘Mr. Kaepernick let me let you know man you’re my hero.’” Carlos said. “I told him I admire you because everyone is telling you that you’re wrong with what you’re doing but you know what man you’re a strong man to step up and do what’s right.”

=Despite Kaepernick being unsigned, Carlos told him his mission and the way he is viewed is different now and he has to remember that going forward.

“I said him to don’t think to yourself that hey man I’m here to play football because I see you want to be a football player, you’re bigger than football now, you’re bigger than sports and you have to conduct and carry yourself that way,” Carlos said. “I said remember that you jumped out there, bottom line is you are the voice of the people and you can’t turn the volume down, you can’t go dormant, you have to turn the volume up. And he’s doing right now in my estimation the opposite of turning it up…”

Carlos pointed to comments made by President Donald Trump last season sharply criticizing players for kneeling and said that offered a moment where Kaepernick should have fought back, but instead stayed quiet during the controversy. Nonetheless, Carlos knows his and Kaepernick’s story are intertwined and said they both hold the same view in their opposition to the president with many of the same issues of racial oppression still existing today.

Similar to how Kaepernick has struggled to be given an opportunity to continue his NFL dream, Carlos said he faced similar struggles trying to provide a living for his family and cited a job he held in California as an example of the backlash he faced. Working as a forklift driver after giving up on a football career of his own, Carlos was called to the personnel office to talk with immigration officers who demanded to see his birth certificate as proof he was an American citizen. Carlos refused to go home and get his certificate and ultimately returned to work for a few days until he was again summoned to the same office.

As the hour came to a close with a question and answer portion, Carl Dix, a representative of the Revolutionary Communist Party, who has taken on an activist role of his own, told Carlos he was a part of the Army at the time of the protest and 50 years later thanked him for inspiring him to continue fighting his own activist mission.

“It tore the barracks apart, some guys lined up on this side and said that was messed up,” Dix said. “Others lined up on this side and said that was right on, it was mostly by race but not completely. The next year I got ordered to go to Vietnam and because of you and because of Tommie Smith, because of Muhammad Ali, because of the Black Panther Party, I had the strength to say ‘Ain’t no good reason for a black man to go over to Vietnam and kill people over there for a country that is doing it to us. Well that started and I’ve kept going and been a revolutionary ever since.”