On the medal stand of the 1968 Summer Olympics, John Carlos raised his fist in the air with Tommie Smith to express a need for change. He spoke with an award-winning Nation magazine sports journalist Dave Zirin in Harris Hall Wednesday to tell about how dangerous activism can be, but why anyone can – and everyone should – stand up for their beliefs.
About 80 people sat transfixed during the speech, which was followed by a book signing for the recently published “The John Carlos Story”, a memoir ghost written by Zirin.
Zirin spoke first and gave background of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, or the movement that Carlos and Smith were involved with as Black Power activist athletes, and what happened at the podium. “Here they are going to the medal stand, right, and one of the main thoughts that they had as they were walking up there is the idea that they can climb on that medal stand, do their thing, and be shot dead – right there on the spot,” said Zirin. Though 1968 was a year marked by assassinations, Carlos raised his fist anyway, he said. “What makes John so remarkable is that he’ll go out to Occupy Wall Street and say that he does not regret what he did for one solitary second,” said Zirin.
But Carlos refused to say that he was special because of this courageous action. When Zirin sat down from his speech, Carlos stayed put in his seat, body relaxed and said in a calm, low voice, “Let me start by sayin’, I’m no different from anyone sitting in this audience. I’m just like you.” He described his childhood growing up in Harlem, New York, and how his father satisfied his curious nature by always answering his many questions to the best of his ability. He told many stories of racial tension and hardships before and after his public salute and said, “No matter how old you are or how young you are, you are always in the position to teach someone. I lost my first wife because the government did so much to us and she couldn’t take it no more, and took her life. But do you think that could stop me for what I had to do?”
Audience members included activists and were cheered on by Carlos’ speech. Carlos Enriquez, 21, said, John Carlos “gives me hope that no matter what happens to me, you know, I can help the country to change and it’s all going to be worth it in the end.”
Kamau Taylor, 10, connected to Carlos’ struggle. “When I was little I used to get bullied and I know how it feels,” he said.
After a question and answer session, participants formed a long line in order to get their books signed.
But before everyone left, Carlos said God gave him a job “to communicate to no more than one person, and no more than one thing. The message that you give, you can put so much love and so much sunshine in one individual’s heart that can radiate throughout the world. So remember, when you leave here, the question is: are you the one person that I reached today?”
**Written October 24th, 2011**