Tag Archives: John Carlos

Remembering all the heroes of the 1968 Olympics

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A guest post by Jim Jepps of Big Smoke

We quite rightly remember the athletes John Carlos and Tommy Smith who gave the black power salute on winning their bronze and gold medals respectively for the 200m at the ‘68 Mexico City Olympics. Their powerful stand against racism still resonates today but in ’68 and the context of Jim Crow, Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King and segregation it was a sharp challenge to a world of injustice.

However, we don’t always remember the other protests around the Mexico Games that were just as important and had equally dire consequences for those willing to put themselves on the line. Ostracised and victimised for standing up for what was right Carlos and Smith both suffered for their stand. They were not alone.

Just before the Games began the 44 people were killed in local protests and at the opening ceremony in Mexico City students flew a dove-shaped kite in opposition to the massacre, so the political atmosphere at the Games was febrile from the start.

Peter Norman, the Australian athlete, who won silver in the famous 200m race wore a patch in solidarity with Carlos and Smith. He made clear it was his opposition to racial segregation and his religious faith that led him to do so.

Speaking years after the event he had no regrets and that, despite the personal cost, he had helped create a historic legacy. That legacy was not forgotten as Carlos and Smith acted as pall bearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006:

“I’m a firm believer that in a victory ceremony for the Olympics, there’s three guys that stand up there, each one’s been given about a square metre of God’s earth to stand on, and what any one of the three choose to do with his little square metre at that stage is entirely up to him.

“If it hadn’t been for that demonstration on that day, it would have just been another silver medal that Australia picked up along the line. No one would ever have heard of Peter Norman.”

Norman’s stand signalled the end of his international athletics career and despite qualifying 13 times for the ’72 Munich Olympics the Australian authorities refused to send him. They even refused to invite him to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the only Australian Olympian they excluded from the ceremonies (he eventually attended as a guest of the Americans).

However, the good news is that the Australian Parliament is set to apologise to Norman in a ground-breaking if long overdue debate:

“That this House; Recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 metres sprint running at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record;”

“Acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the black power salute;”

“Apologises to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and Belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality.”

The fourth Olympian who suffered after a political protest in ’68 is someone we discuss even less today. She was Czech gymnast Věra Čáslavská, whose stand is a perfect parallel with that of Carlos and Smith.

In the wake of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the USSR and the overturning of its new, independent government, she took the brave step of refusing to acknowledge the USSR anthem when it was played during the medal ceremonies, turning her head away and down.

It sounds such a small thing, but Věra Čáslavská knew that despite her astonishing Olympic achievements (she still holds the record number of medals for gymnastics to this day) the repercussions of what she was doing could be very grave, even fatal.

Like Norman she was rewarded for her protest by being disbarred from international competition – but her support for the Prague Spring saw her barred from travelling, working or attending sporting events at all. It was only with the fall of the Eastern Bloc decades later that Čáslavská was properly honoured by her country.

Perhaps we relate to Carlos and Smith’s protest against racism because still feels alive today, while the tyrannies of the East Bloc are fading into history that her dramatic stand feels so forgotten. But Čáslavská, Norman, Smith and Carlos all deserve their place in the hall of fame for Olympian heroes who were willing to stand up against injustice no matter what the personal consequences might be.

Resistance: the best Olympic spirit

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As a companion piece to Mark’s article below, I’ve posted this video of John Carlos, Doreen Lawrence and many others speaking on Monday at Friends Meeting House, at what I believe was the biggest political meeting in London for five years. The meeting voted to call for a public inquiry into police corruption

Here meanwhile is Dave Zirin from the same event (“the Olympics have as much to do with sport as the war in Iraq has to do with democracy”):

A day with the anti-Olympic movement

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I spent Saturday afternoon in the company of the Counter Olympics Network, (CON),  who are the main coalition of anti-Olympics campaign, taking in OurOlympics, the Coalition of Resistance, the main parties of the left, various NGOs campaigning against sweatshop labour and the Olympics sponsors (BP, Dow, G4S, etc), as well as many other veterans of the Occupy movement. Our main topic of discussion was what plans should we have for the proposed day of action on Saturday July 28th (i.e. the first Saturday of the Olympics). I’ll not go into too much detail here, save to record that the focus is likely to be in East London during the middle of the day.

There will be weekly planning meetings taking place between now and the 28th and those interested in getting involved should look out for updates from CON and OurOlympics.

A calendar of events is starting to taking shape:

+ 21 May, John Carlos speaking at Friends Meeting House

+31 May, Stop the Olympic Missiles, public meeting in East London

+ 7 July, Fattylympics, the alternative Games

+28 July, the main Counter Olympics Network protest

In the evening, I was at Bookmarks, for Carlos and Zirin’s warm-up talk. John Carlos described growing up in poverty in Harlem, following the rise of Malcolm X and being part of his entourage, what it felt like when Malcolm died, and the enduring shame of racism in the US.

Dave Zirin had some nice lines too. “In two days in England I’ve learned that Black pudding isn’t chocolate. And that Dave Cameron is both a dick and a tosser…”

Meeting the Olympics Project for Human Rights (part 2)

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I was present on Monday for a second meeting of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, the London network that has invited John Carlos to speak at Friends Meeting House in London on 21 May. There were a number of campaigns represented at the meeting including the Institute of Race Relations, Unite Against Fascism, Defend the Right to Protest, the RMT union etc.

Several other unions including the FBU are now backing the meeting as well as other campaigns such as the United Friends and Families Campaign.  The socialist sports writer and Carlos’ co-author is now speaking on the 21, will be Doreen Lawrence, and Janet Alder among others.

Carlos and Zirin will also be speaking under the banner of “John Carlos in Conversation”. The following is their timetable:

May 16, Brighton,
May 18 Brixton,
May 19, Bookmarks

May 22 Norwich,
May 25 Liverpool,
May 29 Stratford,
May 30 London

Meeting the Olympics Project for Human Rights

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Am just back from a meeting of the Olympics Project for Human Rights, the London-based successor to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s original campaign, which culminated in their salute at the 1968 Olympics.

OPHR’s re-foundation has been the work above all of the RMT trade union, which early in March organised a public meeting in London titled We Demand Justice, bringing together the families of Christopher Alder and Sean Rigg, two Black Britons who died in police custody, and whose families have been campaigning for justice ever since, with Paddy Hill, John McDonnell MP and several other speakers.

“OPHR 2”, as I’ll call it, has organised a further public meeting, at 6pm on 21 May at Friends Meeting House opposite Euston station, to be addressed by John Carlos (above). Other speakers will include Janet Alder (of the Christopher Alder campaign), Doreen Lawrence (of the Stephen Lawrence campaign) and the rapper Lowkey.

OPHR 2 seeks to bring together the memory of Carlos and Smith’s action with the many family justice campaigns of which the Lawrence, Alder and Rigg families are merely the best known. The campaign is calling for practical human rights victories to come out of the Olympics (and the anti-Olympics protest movement): including and end to Stop and Search, and the prosecution of the police officers responsible for deaths in custody.

The formation of OPHR 2, alongside the Counter Olympics Network, Occupy London and others, is a clear sign of the growing number of people in London fed up with Olympic organisers’ neo-liberal vision.

A flier for the event on 21 May is attached here

1968: the supporting cast

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I gather that a British trade union is in negotiations with John Carlos of John Carlos and Tommie Smith fame to see if Carlos can come over to London and speak here in the run up to this summer’s Olympics.

This is a good opportunity to record the support that Carlos and Smith received from a small group of anti-racist white Olympians.

Those who did support Carlos and Smith, it must be acknowledged, were a minority. They were booed when they gave the salute, and half-expected to be shot. Avery Brundage the President of the IOC intimated to the press that their medals would be taken away (they weren’t). After the killings of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Bundage explained the murders in terms of the rise of black militant politics, which had informed not just Carlos and Smith’s actions but the ban on countries practising apartheid sport (ie South Africa and Rhodesia), whose exclusion Avery had strongly opposed.

But two athletes in particular bucked the trend; one was Peter Norman, the “third man” on the podium, who wore the badge of Carlos and Smith’s Olympic Project for Human Rights. Norman was banned for two years by the Australian authorities and despite repeatedly running the 100m and 200m qualifying times, was not selected for the 1972 Olympics. For the first time in 76 years, Australia refused to send any male sprinters to that year’s games. Norman’s story is at the heart of the film ‘Salute’ (poster above).

The other white athlete to mention, is Paul Hoffman, cox of the American rowing eight, who provided Norman with the OPHR badge. As Carlos describes in his book, the eight, who were Harvard students, consistently supported their campaign. It was 1968, and even the Olympics were changed.

Anatomy of a protest

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Dave Zirin and John Carlos, The John Carlos Story (Chicago: Haymarket, 2011)

If the definition of mis-government is a society which disdains spending on health or education but fritters billions on prestige projects designed to boost its leaders’ global prestige; then there are few processes better designed to speed this process than when a country wins the competition to host an Olympic games.

For John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and the other protesters of 1968, the enemy was something more specific than our own generation’s villains of privatisation and corruption. Their demands were:

  • restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title
  • remove Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee
  • disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics

Their vehicle, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), called for boycotts of the Mexico Olympics. But the boycott position crumbled, from a mixture of weakness (one of the activists behind the scene was Martin Luther King; the athletes were disorientated after his death) and strength (South Africa was banned).

Carlos and Smith, two of the most ardent boycotters, qualified for the Olympics and travelled to Mexico, arriving in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter of several hundred student protesters. They were determined to do something to demonstrate against racism and only settled belatedly on the tactic of the black power salute.

The iconography of the scene turns out to subtly more complex than just the two saluters sharing a single pair of black gloves. Carlos and Smith wore beads to remember the American history of lynching. They refused to wear shoes, their bare feet symbolising the poverty in which so many black Americans have lived. Carlos wore a black t-shirt to hide his USA vest.

Peter Norman, the (white) Australian silver medallist in the 200 metres, wore an OPHR badge on the podium, in solidarity with Carlos and Smith.

Carlos reveals that he had been overwhelmed by the significance of the Olympics from an early age: “Of course I listened to every sport on the radio, but nothing captured my mind, heart and spirit quite like the Olympic Games … The sheer variety of sports, the idea of the finest athletes from around the globe gathering and representing their countries: it was different, and the fact that it was very four years just made it feel like an extra kind of special.”

He hoped to swim at the Olympics; the absence of a full-size pool in New York open to black swimmers stymied this early ambition.

Growing up in Harlem, Carlos’ early teens were spent stealing from trains and distributing food and nappies among local residents. The weeks spent running, heavily laden, from police officers, were a preparation of sorts.

Carlos’ athletic breakthrough occurred when he was asked to try out, together with children several years his senior, for the high school team:

“I hadn’t shown up to run so I was wearing these big, heavy clodhoppers. We called them ‘Ivy League shoes’ because they had no style … In [my father’s] mind, if you had on Ivy League shoes, you were good to go because they would never wear out in the broken asphalt of New York City and so that’s what my brothers, my sisters, and I would wear.”

“Despite these Ivy league shoes, I lined up alongside the fastest guys on the high school team in my street clothes and my clodhoppers to run 100 yards. When the coach said ‘go’, I pumped my legs, and felt the resistance against my pants. I kicked out my feet and felt the heaviness of my shoes. And then, I crossed the finish line and saw that everyone was way back. snacking on my dust. Mild-mannered Mr Youngerman whooped loudly and said, ‘Oh sit, we got a phenom here.’”

The drama culminates in the podium scene. The gesture was not popular; nor did Carlos or Smith expect it to be:

“As the national anthems played”, Carlos explains, “the calm before the storm ended and the boos started coming down. The people who weren’t booing were screaming the national anthem … I thought about what Tommie and I had already said to each other: ‘If anybody has a high-power rifle and they hit the trigger, just remember that we’ve been trained to listen to the gun. So, just focus and hit the deck.”

“If you look at the pictures”, Carlos continues, “Tommie’s first and back are so straight it looks like he was drawn with a protractor. My arm is slightly bent. That was because I wanted to make sure in case someone rushed us. I could throw down a hammer punch to protect us.”

With London 2012 due soon, this book reminds us that there are more routes to success in the Olympics that studying at Loughborough and having a father who worked as a manager. It is published in the US only; but can be ordered through Bookmarks, etc.