John Carlos explains his act of defiance during the Mexico Olympics of 1968 in a recent discussion
It is curious that the life of a man approaching 67 years of age can be so relentlessly defined by an action lasting mere moments, which took place when he was just 23. Also intriguing is that he himself seems to be the strongest proponent of this narrow compartmentalisation of his life. Speaking at Stratford East Picturehouse earlier this week, in a moving and greatly personable discussion, John Carlos repeatedly insisted that he knew he was born to do what he did in the 1968 Olympics when he and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists in the air, having collected their medals, as the Star-Spangled Banner played on world television. The 1968 Olympics marked the first time the competition had been televised globally, as Carlos pointed out. All else in his life, as far as achievements and actions are concerned, with the exception of his family perhaps, have been and are secondary.
Carlos’s discussion, and particular themes he touched upon, were highly relevant as this year’s London Olympics swiftly approach, and his grace and humility allowed a relaxed but strong engagement with the audience. He was effortlessly eloquent, but offered more insight, expectedly, talking about the black Civil Rights Movement in the United States and his position therein rather than contemporary challenges. His views on certain issues such as corporate involvement in the games and the impact on local communities did seem, nonetheless, especially valuable for the community activists in the audience.
Carlos spent the vast majority of his time describing both his personal background and the social and historical context at the time of his youth – what formed the backdrop of his and Smith’s actions. This was revealing, and both represented and reinforced to a great extent what he put in blunt terms and emphasised throughout: “You should know your history.” Action without thought was shallow, Carlos said, and “you should know what you’re talking about” before you do something about it. “We knew our history”, Carlos went on to describe, referring to the voracious reading he and Smith undertook in the run-up to the 1968 Olympics, in order to appreciate the weight of their actions, what they were addressing, and the potential repercussions. What he communicated through doing this was the importance of taking into account the social, political and historical conditions that form and inform iconic actions and expressions of resistance, rather than focussing too narrowly on the actions themselves (or, as he was quick to denounce, the idolisation of the people behind them). He spent little time talking about the repercussions of what he did, some of which were seriously damaging to both he and his family. Again, not only was this a reflection of his self-effacement, but it highlighted the primacy of the wider perspective above the individual.
It was also interesting to hear Carlos’s own interpretation of what he and Smith did. Such open and pivotal demonstrations that leave a long-lasting imprint in historical public memory are often claimed and appropriated by various sections of the community, who then go on to develop their own stories behind them and attach their own meanings to them, which change with time and depend to a large extent on social class. The events become disconnected from their original actors, essentially, and form a life of their own, often powerful and mythical. This is not to denounce subjective interpretation, which is not only entirely natural but also perhaps desirable, especially if those understandings take into account context and are used for progressive purposes which address this context.
Carlos, interestingly, rejected the description of what he and Smith did as a matter of “Black Power”. He insisted: “This was not about Black Power, or Brown Power, or Red Power, or Yellow Power.” He saw it in a quite different way, using an effective analogy: when our hands are stretched out, our fingers, each representing a “colour” or “race”, are separated; when they form a fist, they come together in strength and unity. Tommie Smith, in his autobiography Silent Gesture, echoes this, describing the gesture not as a “Black Power salute”, but a “human rights salute”. This was certainly moving to hear, but raised a few questions: why, then, the black socks, the black glove, and in the case of Smith, the black scarf? What conception of Black Power did the two hold that made them seem eager to reject it, at least in the specific case of their action? Indeed, had their interpretations of what they did, and the connotations they attached to them, actually changed with time?
The notion of Black Power has never been static or uniform. What is termed the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s reflected a wide range of aims and priorities: for some it was about economic self-sufficiency and independence from white domination; for others it was about education and self-awareness and creating a counter-discourse; and for some, it involved physical self-defence and the assertion of black pride against institutions of oppression, notably the police. What view of Black Power did Carlos and Smith hold, and was it honestly entirely irrelevant to their action?
But what was certainly both one of the most moving and relevant points of Carlos’s discussion was when he came to the issue of the proposed boycott of the 1968 Olympics – and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s avid support for it. Carlos actually opposed the call for a boycott, claiming those who supported it did not appreciate how important the competition was to its athletes and participants, and their families and supporters. Indeed, he put this point directly to Dr. King at a meeting of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). The civil rights leader responded powerfully and eloquently. He told Carlos to imagine he and his colleagues had rowed far into the middle of a lake, at which point nothing visibly surrounded them, leaving just they and their boat in still and empty waters. “If you dropped a stone” at this point, “what would happen?” Dr King asked Carlos. “It would create ripple effects all around. That’s what the boycott would do. The boycott is the stone.”
The call for a boycott of the competition was eventually dropped after South Africa and Rhodesia had been disinvited. It was remarkable to hear this story from Carlos first-hand, and it stands stark in the face of the image that has been created of Dr. King as an individual cosy with power, and acceptable to power. Carlos’s position in the debate, whilst easy to denounce, raises wider questions of both the moral weight and strategic usefulness of boycotts, particularly of a competition such as the Olympics, which, we are told, are held on the principles of global humanity and unity.
The London 2012 Olympics will take place in the backdrop of brutal circumstances in certain countries. It would have been interesting to hear whether Carlos’s opinions on boycott had changed at all. And one cannot help but ask, considering the participation of these countries, whether Dr King would support the boycotting of the 2012 Olympics, and if so, which nations would need to be disinvited for him to change his mind.
Photo Credits: Rukia Begum Exclusively for The Platform
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