Occupying with John Carlos

November 6, 2011
John Carlos (right) gives the Black Power salute with Tommy Smith (centre) at the 1968 Olympics.

When fist-raising 1968 Olympian Dr John Carlos and I wrote his memoir, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, we didn't exactly expect the publishing date to coincide with a mass national protest movement for economic and social justice.

I've now heard about 100 variations of the joke: "It was really smart of your publisher to plan this whole 'Occupy' movement with your book release." It's an obvious comment, given that Carlos and I have made sure to visit every Occupy encampment we can on our national book tour.

It's also been an incredible gift: not necessarily to book sales, but to Carlos, and, I would argue, to the movement as well.

African American athletes Carlos and Tommie Smith famously raised their fist in a “Black power” salute on the podium of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, in a show of support for anti-racist struggles taking place across the United States.

Carlos knew the price of his actions would be high. But I know he didn't expect the pound of flesh extracted to be so brutal.

He couldn't find work for years. Many dear friends walked out of his life. The FBI made it a point to harass him and his family. His children were bullied by teachers in school.

Finally, his first wife, Kim, took her own life in 1977.

For years, as Carlos said to me, even when their gesture was remembered with respect instead of derision, he felt like an Olympian in exile.

He told me in 2003: “I don't feel embraced, I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer. It's like if you are sick and no one wants to be around you, and when you're well, everyone who thought you would go down for good doesn't even want to make eye contact. It was almost like we were on a deserted island.

“That's where Tommie Smith and John Carlos were. But we survived.”

Visiting the Occupy sites has allowed Carlos to see that he did a hell of a lot more than "survive".

He's inspired people born decades after his gesture to stand up and be bold. He's inspired people ready to hear that he wasn't just part of a "moment" but an actual human rights "movement", built in the heart of the global athletic leviathan known as the Olympic Games.

I think the presence of Carlos has been important for the Occupy movement as well. It lends a sense of connectivity to struggles past and the moral authority of a person who suffered, but tells young people: "I don't regret what I did for one solitary instant because it's about seizing your moment in time and not regretting that when you were called upon to stand up, you didn't do it.

“Trust me; those who didn't stand up in 1968 regret it today."

He also drew a direct line from the medal stand to Zuccotti Park at Occupy Wall Street camp in New York, saying: "There was no more important place to stand up in 1968 than the Olympic medal stage. And given the economic injustice in the world, there is no more important place today to stand up than Wall Street."

The book as well has a message markedly different from typical sports memoirs, which are normally an exercise in "Look how awesome I am. You can now proceed to genuflect."

Instead, its thesis is that not everyone can run 100 yards in under nine seconds, but anyone can lead a committed life dedicated to principles of social justice.

This is certainly a special moment in our collective people's history. It's a magical thing to see someone who was part of the great struggles in the past find a home in the struggles of our present.

Hopefully, we'll see many more people at encampments across the states. And hopefully, we will have more "Jocks for Justice" raising their fists at our side.

[Reprinted from Zirin's website www.edgeofsports.comwww.edgeofsports.com . You can order The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World from www.haymarketbooks.orgwww.haymarketbooks.org .]

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