ATLANTA (WSAV) – One of the most powerful acts in the history of civil rights was made at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
At the center of the movement was bronze medalist John Carlos, an African American sprinter who took a big risk with one defiant gesture at the Games.
“I was in a grass field standing on a box, and I could hear voices. I could hear laughter and happiness,” he told WSAV at his home just outside of Atlanta.
“All the happiness, instantaneously, like somebody hit a switch, turned to anger, vulgarness, spitting — telling me where to go,” Carlos added.
What started as a dream one night during his childhood would be realized as a powerful prophecy of his future.
“You know, as a kid, you want to get up and raise your arm so high because you want everybody to see,” he said, “And just as I went to do that, my hand froze in time.
“The thing is, that it froze in time in the same position, it was 15 years later in Mexico.”
That time it wasn’t in a dream but on a world stage.
At the 1968 Games, his USA Olympic track and field teammate Tommie Smith won gold in the 200-meter run. Carlos won bronze.
While on the medal presentation platform, the two American athletes made a resounding statement about their Black pride by raising their first during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Now etched in history as the “Black Power salute,” the gesture made a resounding statement against racial injustice and inequality.
Carlos and Smith also wore symbols of strength on the victory stand. The black fist glove represented unity. The beads protested lynching. The black socks without shoes represented Black poverty.
It was the height of the civil rights movement and both men were part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which pushed for a boycott of the 1968 Games.
“When it came down to the quarter-semi, I approached Tommie, and I told Tommie that I was disenchanted that the boycott was called off and I wanted to make a statement. What’s your take on that?” Carlos recalled. “He said he was with me.”
Ultimately, the International Olympic Committee expelled Carlos and Smith from the Games. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, who showed solidarity with the Americans, was also forced out for wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the victory stand.
“So anything that was happening to us here in the United States was happening maybe double fold to Peter Norman in Australia,” Carlos said. “They kicked him off the team.”
“He suffered quite a bit for merely making a statement,” Carlos added. “But what I admire, respect and love about Peter, and will go out to eternity with me, is that they went to him and said, all you have to do is denounce these guys and you will be back on front street. And he never wavered.
“He never denounced us, he never backed away from us; never said one bad thing about us. I respect him as much today as the day I actually met him and embraced him.”
And 53 years later, Carlos still supports an athlete’s right to be an advocate.
WSAV asked him about hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who turned her back on the American flag as the national anthem was playing during the Olympic trials.
“Without…Gwen Berry, where is there growth?” Carlos asked. “We’ll just keep repeating the same thing, putting our hands on our heart and crying, and then we are always the one that’s left out.
“Someone has to make a statement somewhere.”
Carlos says he has no regrets about his actions in 1968 because it made the world take note.
“It’s great to be a beacon or lighthouse to let someone on the other side of the world know there is hope.”