Former Olympian speaks to J/MS students about new book

At photo left, Carlos, right, gives the “Black Power” salute during his medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics. Photo supplied by Google Images

By Kaitlin Donnelly —

Important men and women making the news and influencing culture often come to the Journalism and Media Studies Department to lecture and spend time with budding journalists practicing their interviewing and writing skills.

The most recent visit was from John Carlos, the Olympic Bronze Medalist in track and field at the 1968 Olympic Games, who is famous for performing the Black Power salute on the podium along with teammate Tommie Smith.

Following that act of defiance, the two were suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village, but many at the time praised the pair for shining a spotlight on racism and inequality.

“You can’t let people dictate,” Carlos, now 66, told J/MS majors. “You have to say, ‘I have a brain, and I can determine what’s right or wrong.’”

He has just written a book about the 1968 Olympics and the life he has had since his civil disobedience. Carlos played in the NFL and was involved in political activism and civil rights work. In April 2008, he was a torchbearer for the Human Rights Torch, running parallel to the 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay.

Because of Carlos’s recent appearances and the success of his book, J/MS professors Steve Miller and Deepa Kumar thought Carlos would be an ideal speaker for Miller’s Introduction to Media Systems and Processes class. Kumar happens to be friendly with David Zirin, co-author of The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World, and arranged for Carlos to come to Rutgers. It helped that Carlos’ daughter, Kimme Carlos, works on the Livingston Campus for the African Studies Association.

John Carlos, above, speaks to Rutgers journalism students. Photo by Kaitlin Donnelly

His speech and Q&A after was well received. Carlos was born in 1945 in Harlem and explained to his young audience that he grew up during a time of segregation and discrimination for African-Americans.

Carlos realized his talent for running in junior high. He thought he might make a difference. He went to college at San Jose State University and then made the Olympic Track Team.

After the failed American boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics, Carlos and Smith planned some sort of demonstration and found an opportune moment when Carlos placed third in the 200-meter and his teammate Smith placed first.

When they stood on the Olympic podium to receive their medals, Smith wore a black scarf and Carlos chose to wear beads around his neck to represent the lynchings in the South. Both wore a single black glove. And they made history as they lowered their heads, raised a hand and showed the clenched-fist Black Power salute. This single act of civil disobedience had a galvanizing effect around the world, on white and African-American communities alike.

“As a young group of Americans, you have the same opportunity to come together to build a powerful force to control your future,” Carlos told his audience. “When you have unity, you can move a mountain.”

As they frantically took notes for their articles, J/MS students appeared exhilarated to hear from someone of Carlos’ stature.

“I felt really lucky that I got a chance to hear such an amazing story and to meet someone who had such a profound effect on American history,” said sophomore J/MS major Mai Nguyen.