You may know his name, and you definitely know the iconic photo of him standing next to Tommie Smith and Peter Norman on the medals podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, his black-gloved fist raised next to Smith’s in defiance of racial injustice. But you may know little more about John Carlos. Many of us learned about him the same way students at a Southern California high school, where he worked as a counselor after retiring from running, did: “Man, we see this picture in the history book and they don’t have any story about it,” he remembers some kids telling him. “It’s just a two-liner with the people’s names.”
The Vox Darkroom video above packs more than a caption version of his history in just under 10 minutes. The silent protest, we learn, followed a threatened boycott from the athletes earlier in the year, supported by Martin Luther King, Jr., who appears in a clip. Instead, they went on to win medal after medal. We also learn much more about how all three runners on the podium, including Silver-winning Aussie Peter Norman, participated by wearing buttons supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Founded by former athlete and activist Harry Edwards, the organization aimed to strategically disrupt U.S. Olympic success by “opting out of the games,” refusing to give Black athletes’ labor to sports that refused to combat racism.
Twenty years before these actions, Black athletes became potent symbols of the bootstrapping American success story for the media, long before the end of legal segregation. As history professor Dexter Blackman says in the video, the message became, “if Jackie Robinson can make it, then why can’t other Blacks make it?” This “myth of racial progress” could not survive the 1960s. By the time of Smith and Carlos’ arrival in Mexico City in October of 1968, Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Cities around the country were erupting as frustration over failed Civil Rights efforts boiled over. Neither Carlos nor Smith wear shoes in their podium photo, in protest of the poverty that persisted in Black communities.
The three paid a price for their statement. The protest was called “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit” by the IOC president, who had not objected to Nazi salutes when he had been an Olympic official in 1936. Norman, who seems completely oblivious at first glance in the photograph, “returned home to Australia a pariah,” CNN writes, “suffering unofficial sanction and ridicule as the Black Power salute’s forgotten man. He never ran in the Olympics again.” Smith fared better, though he was suspended with Carlos from the Olympic team. He left running, played NFL football, won several awards and commendations, and became a track coach and sociology professor at Oberlin.
In an essay at Vox, Carlos describes how “the mood in the stadium went straight to venom” after the two raised their fists. “The first 10 years after those Olympics were hell for me. A lot of people walked away from me…. they were afraid. What they saw happening to me, they didn’t want it to happen to them and theirs.” His kids, he said “were tormented,” his marriage “crumbled.” Still, he would do it again. Carlos embodies the same uncompromising attitude, one that refuses to silently accept racism, even while standing (or kneeling) in silence. “If you’re famous and you’re black,” he writes, “you have to be an activist. That’s what I’ve tried to do my whole life.”