“It’s far greater than just the medal. It’s about humanity,” said John Carlos during his time on Haverford College’s campus recently.
A Bronze medal winner in the 1968 Olympic Games, the former athlete, educator, and humanitarian continues to be an advocate for justice.
During the nine months prior to the 1968 Olympics, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Protests and demonstrations were common. Ten days before the Olympics were held, Mexico’s infamous Tlatelolco massacre occurred. Scores of people were killed, jailed or unaccounted for.
On Oct. 16, 1968, along with teammate Tommie Smith, Carlos would show a display of solidarity during the medal ceremony — raising a single fist covered with a black glove. Ultimately, they sought to be voices for the socially, economically and spiritually frustrated and oppressed.
“I was in this fight 44 years ago and still am this day,” Carlos said.
Carlos was convinced that the Olympics was the preeminent platform for encouraging a peaceful, tolerant and fair world. However, his legendary and polarizing stance led him to enduring years of personal and professional strife.
“When I broke the 200 meters world record, I was the hometown hero. When I did the protest, I was the hometown trouble maker,” Carlos told an intimate group during a lunch discussion.
Since the 1968 Olympics salute, Carlos’ action has proven to be an inspiration the world over.
In 1969, Carlos competed in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games at Villanova University held in honor of the fallen leader. He lived in Willingboro, N.J., for a period of time before injuring his knee on Franklin Field as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 1976, Carlos toured South Africa with a multinational delegation, where he was featured at the 81st Annual Paarl Boxing Day Track Meet in front of 13,000 people. He also performed at the Rand Afrikaans University (presently known as the University of Johannesburg), the institution’s first integrated sporting event.
Today, Carlos lives in Palm Springs, Calif., working as an educator at an area high school while touring the world as a speaker, historian and ambassador for sport, peace and humanity.
“You guys have the power. You all have a life to live,” Carlos reminded the students and guests in Haverford’s capacity filled Stokes Auditorium. “We were methodical. Everyone’s got to be on the same page for change to take place.
“We didn’t have the right to tell other athletes to boycott the Games, it was their choice,” he added. “But when a chicken is sitting on the fence and he lays an egg, that egg is going to fall on one side only.”
Regardless of which side they stood, Carlos garnered the respect of many of his fellow athletes.
In a display of brotherhood, attending the evening discussion were Herbert Douglas, 90, the oldest living African-American Olympic medalist; 1968 Olympic long jumper and Rowan University assistant track and field coach, Norman Tate; and Edwin Roberts, who placed fourth in the 1968 Olympics 200 meter race for Trinidad and Tobago.
“I wanted to be around a legend,” said Madison Harris, a 7th-grade student at The Philadelphia School. Summoned by Carlos to sit next to Dave Johnson, director of the Penn Relays, Harris received applause when it was announced that she won a medal in this year’s Penn Relays.
Springford High School sophomore and shot put student-athlete, Mekhi Jackson, was inspired to attend as well.
“What [Carlos] did was something that created a sense of pride. My mom taught me about him and that made me want to come and meet him,” he said.
As an iconic figure, Carlos continues to build on his legacy. This year marked the 3rd edition of the Annual John Carlos Track and Field Meet in Palm Springs. Last year he released his memoir, “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.”
“We all have to get over the [proverbial] wall,” Carlos said. “I’ll do everything I can to get as many people over that wall before me, so when I get over it, I know there will be people there. If I communicate to one person and make an impact, then I’m good.”