An autumn Monday night in Scarborough is probably the most unlikely venue to celebrate one of the most iconic Black Power statements of the 20th Century. Yet, on November 14th, 2011, at the U of T’s Scarborough campus, over 200 people of mostly African-Canadian heritage spanning generations, classes, and genders were in attendance for a presentation by John Carlos, Olympic Medalist and author of the recently published “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World”.
It was 43 years ago on October 16, 1968 in Mexico City, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Australian Peter Norman took the Olympic podium and engaged in a protest that would in the words of Cassius Clay, “shake up the world”. The symbolic acts of the three would also result in ramifications in a lifetime of personal and professional hardship for all three men for decades to come, who would be systematically punished for showing up Uncle Sam.
Smith and Carlos dared to break with the long-held Olympic protocols – choosing to receive their medals shoeless in black socks, a black scarf, an unzipped track suit, and a necklace of beads to identify with the scourges of Black poverty, to show solidarity with blue collar workers, and to commemorate the past injustices of Slavery and Lynching. Norman, a critic of Australia’s White Australia Policy (a policy intentionally restricting non-white immigration to Australia), would join Smith and Carlos on the podium wearing badges of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), an organization advocating that Black athletes boycott the Mexico games altogether in 1968.
What became apparent during the presentation is that his actions of John Carlos were not an isolated act of an athlete being manipulated by radicals or extremists. This of course was the line being pushed by the mainstream media, purported by the likes of journalists such as Brent Musburger who dismissed Tommie Smith and John Carlos as “dark-skinned storm troopers”.
In fact, the true extremism was the character of American society in 1968; gross inequity between the social classes, abject poverty, institutionalized racism and segregation, and the unnecessary wars being waged around the world usually directed towards people of colour. It should be noted that many have observed that not much has changed in this respect today.
Another factor that greatly influenced the actions of Carlos, Smith, and Norman was that 10 days before the opening of the summer games in Mexico City, the Mexican government opened fire and massacred over at least 200 students, civilian, and bystanders peacefully calling for a boycott of the Olympics games and a redirection of national resources towards more pressing societal problems such as food, housing, and shelter.
It should also be noted that Mr. Carlos was socialized in Harlem during the 1950’s and 1960’s and exposed to the personalities and intellectual thought that formed the basis of the Black Power movement. Carlos would develop personal friendships with giants of the Civil Rights era such as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who actions of direct protest undoubtedly resonated in hearts and minds of many around the world, yesterday, today, and for years to come.
John Carlos was not an apolitical “dumb jock” as many athletes today have become due to a myriad of factors. As evident in his presentation, he continues to believe that the actions that truly count are the ones taken on behalf of others. Despite the personal obstacles that Mr. Carlos has had to endure, he reaffirmed that the real meaningful legacy one should aspire towards is not athletic accomplishments or amassing personal wealth, but instead “what one stands for when one is alive”. It is for this reason that Mr. Carlos identified and drew parallels with the Occupy Movement because in his analysis like Mexico City, both acts of resistance were striving to create a more equitable society for all instead of a few.
John Carlos will forever be etched in history books and our collective memory. More importantly, his courageous act will continue to give hope to future generations as they strive to create a better world. For this, we should be eternally grateful.
Mesfin Aman is a Toronto based writer that can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World is available at:
A Different Booklist, 746 Bathurst St Toronto, ON M5S 2R6, (416) 538-0889
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