It was a few years ago and I was at a conference in California. There was a break in the conference and the attendees were informally chatting. As I walked around I noticed this brother who looked like he was in his 50s or early 60s. As I approached him I noticed his nametag: "John Carlos," it read.
I introduced myself and said that he and Tommy Smith were forever my heroes for what they did at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Carlos smiled and very humbly thanked me.
If you never saw the famous poster from the '68 Olympics you need to get hold of it. During the medal ceremony Carlos and Smith stood with heads down and clenched fists raised in black gloves, protesting injustice and affronts to human rights.
For many of us at the time it was a statement in support of Black Power, against the ill treatment of Black athletes, and, fundamentally, a bold statement of resistance.
As Sports Illustrated notes, both Carlos and Smith paid a heavy price for their courageous symbolism. They were stripped of their medals; they were attacked as unpatriotic; they were denied future job opportunities; and the strain of all of this apparently tore at their own relationship.
Yet Carlos and Smith did not operate in a vacuum. This was a time of social unrest and different segments of Black America recognized that they had a role to play in our struggle. Athletes were not exempt, whether they were Carlos and Smith, of for that matter in baseball, Curt Flood and Roberto Clemente. These athletes, and many others, recognized that the attention that they garnered could and should be used not only to showcase their individual talents but to bring attention to the struggle for freedom and justice.
With the decline in such large-scale protest movements, it has become less common to see athletes such as Carlos and Smith, though they are still out there. Indeed, we need them as much today as ever. While many of the issues have changed since '68, calling attention to inequality, greed, the environment, racism, sexism and war mongering is not old hat. In the absence of a movement, however, it is difficult to expect individuals to take great risks without support.
Meeting John Carlos was, frankly, thrilling. I was glad that he had survived and continued to stand tall. Yet if there is no organization of courageous and progressive-minded Black athletes, people like John Carlos and Tommy Smith become historical references rather than being older movement activists in a chain that continues through to today.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.