In this era of massive worldwide protests for social justice, the raised arm with a clenched fist has been a visible symbol of solidarity and support—a salute to express unity, as well as defiance or resistance.
So it seemed appropriate that 30 Pitt students recently had the opportunity to interview John Carlos—a man whose raised fist on an Olympic platform in Mexico City back in October 1968 caused a controversy that shook the world.
The students are in the broadcast track through Pitt’s Film and Media Studies program in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, under the instructor Kevin Smith. Even after the spring semester ended and they received their grades, the students continued to text and email Smith to discuss social unrest issues and broadcasting. Smith thought today’s activism presented the perfect timing, so he reached out to his cousin, a prominent AAU track coach who was mentored by Carlos, and the interview was arranged.
“History will always be the greatest educator,” said Smith.
The year 1968 had been a tumultuous one. Two proponents of peace—Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy—had been assassinated and there was heightened social unrest over the Vietnam War.
Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter running event stepped up onto the podium wearing black socks and no shoes. Each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” An outrage followed, resulting in them being kicked out of the Olympics and suspended from the U.S. team. There were no endorsements or commercial opportunities; their families even faced death threats.
“Our plight wasn’t for Black rights. Our plight was for human rights,” Carlos told the group of students via Zoom from his Atlanta home. “It just happened that Black rights fit right into the groove of what was happening, relative to humanity.”
Nonetheless, the pair was ostracized, as was White Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, who stood alongside them on the podium. Norman had heard Carlos and Smith discussing what they were going to do in the staging area prior to the ceremony. Carlos wore beads to illustrate lynchings. Both removed their shoes to represent poverty. Carlos asked Norman if he believed in human rights. When he responded yes and that his parents had been Salvation Army workers his whole life, Carlos pinned a human rights button on Norman’s jacket, just as he and Smith were wearing, and the three took to the field.
“Peter supported us until the day he died,” said Carlos. “He was a true man. It wasn’t about color with Peter. It was about right versus wrong.” When Norman passed away in 2006, Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at his funeral.
In the interview with Pitt students, Carlos answered wide-ranging questions.
Should athletes have a choice to advocate for social change or is it their responsibility?
“Anyone who was given a gift from God, an athlete or an entertainer, yes, it’s their responsibility and everyone’s responsibility,” answered Carlos.
Are there similarities between 1968 and today?
Said Carlos: “I see a lot of ‘me’ running through the streets ... I think a lot of people are just fighting for mere respect.”
Senior Sierra Lomax got Carlos to open up about his childhood in Harlem. He told them how dads in the late 1950s and early 60s who couldn’t make ends meet had turned to selling drugs. Impoverished classmates wore the same clothes to school day in and day out. And Carlos and his buddies were looting the freight trains that came through, stealing clothes and frozen foods and handing them out to his neighbors. But people saw something in young Carlos and knew he was poised for greatness.
When his teacher pointed out other countries on the classroom map to him, he said “I ain’t goin’ to those places.” Her answer, he said: “God told me to get you ready for where you’re going.” Carlos ended up landing a track scholarship to East Texas State University.
“It’s interesting how a simple gesture can make an imprint on our history,” said Lomax afterwards, referring to Carlos’ clenched fist salute. “History repeated itself when Colin Kaepernick took a knee, which led him to lose his job in the NFL. Mr. Carlos laid the blueprints, and my generation is more than ready to see those prints carried out.”
Rising junior and film studies major Chase Murphy produced a 3-minute video that was played for Carlos during the interview session. It’s a mixture of historic and newer civil rights images set to the Beatles' “All You Need is Love.” Carlos was moved and complimented the young film producer.
“It was one of the coolest moments of my life,” said Murphy. Overall, he said, the Carlos discussion will resonate with him for a long time.
“John Carlos truly cares for society as a whole and believes all humans are equal,” he said. “And humanity is worth fighting for.”