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Revisiting the Black Panther salute

Olympian and Civil Rights legend John Carlos to speak at University of Puget Sound

JOHN CARLOS: He fights for the underdog.

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Forty-five years ago John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fist in the air and the whole world took note. That image remains indelible even today. The event was the Olympics in Mexico City. Smith had won the gold medal in the 200 meter race and Carlos had won bronze. They mounted the victory stand and raised their fists in a black power salute as a statement about how far the United States still had to go in its struggle for full civil rights. It was one of the most overtly political statements ever made in the Olympics. Carlos and Smith were called heroes by some, traitors by others.

Tuesday, Jan. 22, in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day John Carlos will give a free talk at University of Puget Sound Schneebeck Concert Hall. The evening will include comments by local and campus leaders and music by Navele Davis and Friends. A reception and a book signing by Carlos, author of The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, will follow. Tickets are not required.

At the awards ceremony in 1968 Carlos and Smith stood in their socks, with no shoes, to represent the poor, with a black scarf and beads around their necks to protest black lynchings. They were supported by Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, who wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. Smith said the gesture was not a "Black Power" salute, but a "human rights salute."

According to Wikipedia, "Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue collar workers in the U.S. and wore a necklace of beads which he described ‘were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage." All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges... Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. Smith later said, ‘If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.'"

After the Olympics Carlos played professional football for the Philadelphia Eagles, Montreal Alouettes, and Toronto Argonauts, before an injury forced him from the game. Since 1985 he has been a counselor and track and field coach at Palm Springs High School in California.

In 2008 the athlete, author, and activist was a torchbearer for the Human Rights Torch Relay, which focused attention on China's human rights record and ran in parallel with the 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay. In the same year, Carlos accepted the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2008 ESPY (Excellence in Sports Yearly) Awards.

Reached by phone, Carlos said he is still working as a counselor but retired from coaching about six years ago. "I put so much time in on weekends I didn't have time to be with my grandkids."

He said he did not have time to bond with his own kids when he was an athlete and wants to make up for that now spending time with grandkids.

When asked how the Olympic moment changed his life he said, "It changed my life relative to universal recognition but not in terms of who I am. I think I was born for that day in 1968. I have always fought for the underdog."

He said the public perception of the event has changed over time. "People have not forgotten. This thing has evolved over 40 years." He said people are a lot more independent now. They think for themselves, not just what the media tells them. "People were more naïve in the 60s."


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