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a brave man
April 5, 2012 1:44 AM   Subscribe

When John Carlos raised his fist in a black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, it changed 20th-century history – and his own life – for ever. How does he feel about it now?
posted by flapjax at midnite (46 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thank you for the introduction.

"In life, there's the beginning and the end," he says. "The beginning don't matter. The end don't matter. All that matters is what you do in between – whether you're prepared to do what it takes to make change.

posted by infini at 2:09 AM on April 5, 2012


Thank you. I overheard people talking about this a few days ago, and, while I had some idea about the events (for one thing, it's a great photo), I was seriously lacking in details.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:46 AM on April 5, 2012


Wow! The term "hero" has been so overused, so misappropriated that it's almost meaningless. I feel a little better knowing that there are still some out there.

I've always admired the famous photo and the gesture behind it, so it's good to hear that at least one of the participants is still going strong and holding to the ideals he bravely expressed forty years ago. I first heard about the salutes in junior high social studies class in Maine. The photo was in our textbook. The teacher was fairly restrained in describing the scene, but there was definitely an undertone of menace in her description. I said something to the effect of "The winners did that? That's AWESOME!" I can still see the hint of an eye roll I got in return.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:51 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Margaret Lambert, a Jewish high jumper who was forced, for show, to try out for the 1936 German Olympic team, even though she knew she would never be allowed to compete, said how delighted it made her feel. "When I saw those two guys with their fists up on the victory stand, it made my heart jump. It was beautiful."
Yes, it was.
posted by Abiezer at 2:52 AM on April 5, 2012 [28 favorites]


The BBC made a good documentary about the salute a couple of years ago, might be able to find it at the usual sources. Peter Norman, the white Aussie on the podium too, also had an interesting life and stood firm behind Carlos and Smith at some personal cost.
posted by Abiezer at 2:59 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman's funeral.

And I am disgusted that the story of Peter Norman's stance is not taught in Australian schools today.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 3:27 AM on April 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


That BBC doc I mentioned is on YouTube.
posted by Abiezer at 3:29 AM on April 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Fantastic interview, thanks so much for posting it.Did Tommie Smith's post-68 life follow a similar trajectory does anyone know? Naively, I had no idea the backlash something so powerful and so right provoked. This man deserved so much more than a medal, and he got so much less.
posted by smoke at 3:40 AM on April 5, 2012


And I am disgusted that the story of Peter Norman's stance is not taught in Australian schools today.

Possibly better than being part of an official curriculum, I passed this mural twice a day for six years of school.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:52 AM on April 5, 2012 [16 favorites]


I would have been among those who criticized this at the time, but now I understand, respect and admire what they did. Change is slow. But it does happen.

(I was born in early 70s)
posted by double bubble at 4:17 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wow, thanks Abiezer, for that BBC doco link.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:24 AM on April 5, 2012


I passed this mural twice a day for six years of school.

posted by UbuRoivas


Is it still there? I would love my kids to see it on our next trip to Sydney, but from what I've read it was going to be destroyed to make way for a train line or a developers wet dream or something else invaluable in the scheme of things.

FWIW, my kids know the story of Carlos, Smith and Norman. I thought I learned about it here on Mefi - maybe I was wrong but I read about it somewhere in the last year or so - but I was determined that my babies would know that we are slowly but surely making progress, thanks to men like them.

posted by malibustacey9999 at 4:44 AM on April 5, 2012


I thought this bit was interesting [asterisks mine] - is that Mexicans shouting that? Something I wouldn't have intuitively expected.

"And then came the storm. First boos. Then insults and worse. People throwing things and screaming racist abuse. "N**gers need to go back to Africa!" and, "I can't believe this is how you n**gers treat us after we let you run in our games."
posted by MuffinMan at 4:48 AM on April 5, 2012


The mural (just near McDonaldtown station if we are thinking of the right one) is sadly no longer visible from the train due to a big bland concrete wall that was erected along that side of the track. As with Ubu, I found it one of the nicer things to look at along the inner-west train line.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 5:01 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is it still there? I would love my kids to see it on our next trip to Sydney, but from what I've read it was going to be destroyed to make way for a train line or a developers wet dream or something else invaluable in the scheme of things.

Central Sydney Planning Committee Meeting 8 March 2012 minutes record that:

It is resolved that the Central Sydney Planning Committee:
(I) under section 39(1) of the City of Sydney Act 1988, approve the preparation and exhibition of one or more planning proposals to:
(iv) identify “The Three Proud People” mural at 39 Pine Street, Newtown as a heritage item;

posted by UbuRoivas at 5:16 AM on April 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


I've always known that iconic photograph, but had never known anything about it. Fascinating, thanks. In the interview, he sounded like a really thoughtful person, someone who would be amazing to talk to over coffee:
"Being a counsellor, you have to talk to the children as though you're talking to a thousand people," he says. "Sometimes you say, 'I love you' and they say, 'I don't want your love' and you say, 'Well, it's out there, so you're going to have to deal with it.' And I learn a lot from them, too."
posted by Forktine at 5:34 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Those were Americans in the stands shouting that; There is a lot of Anti-Black Racism in Mexico, but it is more of a benign neglect mixed with advertising caricatures rather than the good old fashioned White American quasigenocidal vitriol.
posted by Renoroc at 5:39 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Here is an example
posted by Renoroc at 5:41 AM on April 5, 2012


"The greatest problem is we are afraid to offend our oppressors."

I see this a lot lately. Thanks for stepping up, John Carlos.
posted by ignignokt at 6:24 AM on April 5, 2012


John Carlos' official site pays hommage to Muhammad Ali, which didn't surprise me at all.
posted by HuronBob at 6:37 AM on April 5, 2012


Tommie Smith interview from 2008.
posted by kirkaracha at 6:52 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


For another bit of forgotten history, read up on the Tlatelolco massacre which happened in Mexico City just ten days before the '68 Olympics.
posted by Wulfhere at 6:54 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


MuffinMan There were plenty of non-Mexicans in the audience. Olympic crowds are always international, and in a games that close to the USA, with American competitors likely to get medals there was probably a large American section in the audience.
posted by sotonohito at 6:57 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Gestures are so powerful. Images stretch across time, on one hand, we've gained so much in the intervening 44 years on the other, we've barely moved an inch. Whenever I see this image, I'm so proud of these men for standing up for freedom and equality. I also pray that it won't take another 44 years for that freedom and equality to well and truly be felt by everyone.

This Passover, as we contemplate freedom and bondage, I'll make a special prayer for those who are still struggling, and a prayer of thanks for those whose struggle illuminated our world.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:57 AM on April 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


A provocative image, to say the least. On the one hand, I've always wished things would adhere to the Olympic goal of (in my estimation) "no politics, no grandstanding, no countries, no conflicts, except that which is on the field." On the other hand, it's obvious that such a setup is therefore the *perfect* stage on which to send a political or societal message. Fortunately, this "perfect stage" has not often been misused (though, certainly, it has.)

1968 was probably the worst year of the 20th Century, excluding WWII, particularly for the U.S. Somebody had to say something. Perhaps, just as importantly, somebody had to say something *knowing there would be consequences for it.* After all, what makes a hero without risk of reprisal / consequences? They were in exactly the right place at the right time, and better yet, were able to make their statement peacefully, and be heard.

Their lives have been up and down since then, but shit, whose hasn't? Their good names were restored and their act is now looked upon as an important galvanizing moment in History.

I think most people would agree that it's best to keep politics (if I may be permitted to unfairly lump "human rights" into the broad category of "politics" for the sake of argument) out of the Olympic games. Because, let's face it, if every group with a grievance used The Games as their sounding board, eventually both the message and the stage would be lost. And yet that only serves to remind us just how important the issue was/is. That they were willing to risk so much just to make their message heard. It may sound adversarial, but that risk should not be removed, in my opinion. It makes for a great litmus test: (i.e. "what are you willing to do for the cause?") and the scarcity of such risk-taking will cause (or allow) those who dare to garner that much more attention and admiration.
posted by ShutterBun at 6:59 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


It is hard for me to grasp the magnitude of the action here. I mean, intellectually, I understand it. But emotionally? It isn't something I can understand. In the same way that my son will be able to read about the Cold War but will never understand the fear I felt when I learned my home town was only a few miles from a missile silo, or the amazing feeling of hope and joy when the Berlin Wall fell.

I will never be able to fully understand the world that existed for these three men, and I am thankful to them for their part in ensuring this is so.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:08 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think most people would agree that it's best to keep politics (if I may be permitted to unfairly lump "human rights" into the broad category of "politics" for the sake of argument) out of the Olympic games.

The Olympic games have always been political. If anything, their modern origin is meant to be a political statement about the possibility of different nations to get together despite the presence of international conflict. I'd much rather see someone get up on the podium with an armband or badge or gesture representing something they believe strongly in, rather than a shirt covered with logos of corporate sponsors (although I'm not clear on this point -- are olympic athletes allowed sponsor logos on their uniforms?).
posted by Deathalicious at 7:10 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd much rather see someone get up on the podium with an armband or badge or gesture representing something they believe strongly in, rather than a shirt covered with logos of corporate sponsors

I wholeheartedly agree. (about the corporate sponsors)

Olympic uniforms are (as far as I know) not allowed to bear sponsor logos, although other equipment (helmets, sticks, gloves, etc.) are allowed to retain the manufacturer's name.

Armbands, badges, and gestures are at least *more* true to the Olympics (after all, the teams are divided up by countries) than corporate sponsors, although of course there are some rather bad examples of that in the past.

The Olympic games have always been political.

Sigh. Yeah, I think you're probably right, at least when it comes to superpowers.
posted by ShutterBun at 7:20 AM on April 5, 2012


Wow, Australia really crapped on Peter Norman.
posted by Ritchie at 7:33 AM on April 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


It is hard for me to grasp the magnitude of the action here.

The nearest equivalent I can think of would be if, say, Greg Louganis (or a contemporary equivalent) held aloft a rainbow banner during the National Anthem at his medal ceremony.

It's obvious that both the message and its impact would be HUGE. As the rainbow banner is a logo for gay rights / activism today, so too was the "raised fist" a symbol for black civil rights (and more often than not) *strong* activism. I would stop short of branding it as "militant," but at the time, I have no doubt that was the commonly "understood" meaning.

So yeah, it was a big deal. And it was a big deal about an issue that was already a GIGANTIC deal, so it bore some international attention. (would South America have abondoned Apartheid if the entire (err...lots of) rest of the world didn't start leaning on them?)

These guys basically "called America out" on worldwide television. Some people got it, some didn't. Some learned, some didn't. Everyone heard.
posted by ShutterBun at 7:33 AM on April 5, 2012


A half century later and this audacious protest still resonates strongly. Very few match that.
posted by caddis at 7:58 AM on April 5, 2012


Thank you for this. I will give it to my teenage daughter to read tonight as well as Norman's story.
posted by incandissonance at 7:59 AM on April 5, 2012


@ sotonohito

I understand Mexico is near the US and Americans will have been in the audience. But the pertinent quote is:

"this is how you n**gers treat us after we let you run in our games,", which suggests it is locals saying it, surely?
posted by MuffinMan at 8:51 AM on April 5, 2012


Unfortunatley the relationship between Smith and Carlos hasn't been the best.

Carlos talks far too much to suit the more introspective Smith, who devotes hundreds of words in his book to the alleged logorrhea of his former teammate. But Carlos's most unpardonable offense, by far, was to claim that he let Smith win that race. "That will break up a friendship right there," Smith writes.

For his part, following his 2003 induction into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Carlos was stunned to read this passage in Smith's book: "[W]hat did he do to get into the Hall of Fame? He didn't win a gold medal. He had the 100-meter world record for about a minute.... It's another thing he has because of being on that victory stand with me." It's difficult to reconcile the author of these breathtakingly petty sentiments with the man who perpetrated one of the great acts of moral courage in the history of sports.

"You'll never know how much it bothers me," says Carlos of his estrangement from Smith (who from 1978 through his retirement in 2005 served on the faculty and coached track at Santa Monica College). "After 40 years it's gotten to the point where I've said, 'God, it's yours. I can't deal with it no more.'"


Harry Edwards: "At the end of the day, what you have is two old dudes sitting at the end of the bar, an hour before closing time, telling war stories. And every night the stories change."
posted by stargell at 8:53 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Democracy Now did a great interview with John Carlos last fall. Here's Part 1 and Part 2.

I think that Shutterbun's description of the '68 salute as a "call out" is very apt. After the Trayvon Martin shooting, I was reading about Emmitt Till and saw this picture of Till's great-uncle pointing out the killers in the courtroom. It reminded me of the iconic picture of the Olympic salute. Both pictures convey to me a message of black men rightfully demanding justice in the face of something very, very wrong. And in each case, that action was an affront to those who were complacent with the status quo.
posted by compartment at 9:09 AM on April 5, 2012


@MuffinMan Possibly. Or possibly it's just America-centric yammer from an idiot, I wouldn't be surprised if the same sort of person who would say that would also be the same sort of person who imagines the Olympics to be an American property. Or possibly Carlos misremembered a word.

OTOH, there is certainly no shortage of Hispanic racism against blacks today and presumably the situation was worse in the 1960's, it isn't at all impossible it was Mexican saying that.
posted by sotonohito at 9:24 AM on April 5, 2012


The mural (just near McDonaldtown station if we are thinking of the right one) is sadly no longer visible from the train due to a big bland concrete wall that was erected along that side of the track. As with Ubu, I found it one of the nicer things to look at along the inner-west train line.

That mural was one of the few good things about going through Macdonaldtown station, which is otherwise a blasted wasteland of crushed rock and windswept platforms. I could have sworn that I've talked about Three Proud People on MeFi before, but I can't find it now.

There was a campaign to replace the section of wall in front of it with plexiglass, but I'd like to see the concrete wall painted with a copy of the mural.
posted by zamboni at 9:32 AM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


MuffinMan: Or perhaps the speaker considers the American team to be representing, specifically, white America, not all America.
posted by hattifattener at 9:56 AM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


A provocative image, to say the least. On the one hand, I've always wished things would adhere to the Olympic goal of (in my estimation) "no politics, no grandstanding, no countries, no conflicts, except that which is on the field." On the other hand, it's obvious that such a setup is therefore the *perfect* stage on which to send a political or societal message. Fortunately, this "perfect stage" has not often been misused

The staging of any Olympic Games is a political event in itself, whether it's intented to provide some sort of watered down cool Brittannia moment or let China feel it's a superpower now.

What's never allowed is unstaged, unauthorised political protest, which is why that black power gesture was so powerful and why the people involved had to be punished so harshly.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:57 AM on April 5, 2012


What becomes clear in that documentary I linked is that those who took part also had problems with the racist way athletics was being run in the US and with the Olympic committee, especially Avery Brundage. Politics had been brought into sport, or its presence excused, by people like Brundage even while they loudly decried any such mixing. Brundage was also the one who insisted on Smith and Carlos being sent home when the team were originally happy with a reprimand (do read about his behaviour at the 1936 Munich Games as well).
posted by Abiezer at 12:16 PM on April 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"this is how you n**gers treat us after we let you run in our games,", which suggests it is locals saying it, surely?

I assumed that it was a statement from a white person who believed that the Olympics (and probably just about everything else worth having) belonged to white people and that it was some sort of kind concession for white people to deign to allow people of color to participate.
posted by decathecting at 5:15 PM on April 5, 2012


"this is how you n**gers treat us after we let you run in our games,", which suggests it is locals saying it, surely?

I had read that as probably being said by someone in the Olympic apparatus -- maybe another athlete or an organizer, someone like that.
posted by Forktine at 5:52 PM on April 5, 2012


Naively, I had no idea the backlash something so powerful and so right provoked.

Me neither. The reaction to it actually moved me to tears. The fact that the LA Times accused them of engaging in a "Nazi-like salute"? Just... wow. I'm also rather appalled that Peter Norman was not only banned from Olympic competition for two years afterward, but that he had to be invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics by the US.
posted by skycrashesdown at 6:12 PM on April 5, 2012


That mural was one of the few good things about going through Macdonaldtown station

Frustratingly, Wikipedia & a 48-page PDF heritage report on the mural both claim that it was painted in 2000, for the Sydney Olympics. This jars with my recollection of it being at least 2 decades older - I was travelling that line in the 1980s, and certainly not much around 2000.

I also remember being intrigued by it in a way that wouldn't have happened in the internet age - who was the whitey? Why was he proud? Was he a South African or something? Was South Africa banned from international sport in 1968? Is the mural meant to signify something about "good" pride vs "bad' pride? It was only years later that I learned the story of Peter Norman, but seeing the mural so often had well & truly primed me to want to learn what the hell the 3rd proud person was all about, so that was like a Eureka moment for me. I strongly time this all as adolescent stuff, not something that first arose well after I'd finished uni.

I'd be keen to hear if anybody else remembers it from earlier than 2000, because I swear my memory isn't that shoddy. Perhaps it was restored in 2000? And the rest is forgotten verbal history, rewritten by an opportunistic artist who wanted to claim the work as his own?
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:07 PM on April 5, 2012


48-page PDF heritage report on the mural
Repainting of the Mural on the existing sound wall is not recommended as it will diminish the historical values of the original Mural.
Looks like my idea has been considered and rejected. Whee!
posted by zamboni at 8:50 PM on April 5, 2012


I was just at San Jose State University a month ago and saw this statue of them (SJSU alums). Worth going to see if you're in the area.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:17 PM on April 5, 2012


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