Celebrated civil rights activist and Olympic-athlete Dr. John Carlos visited HNU the week of November 11. He is the coauthor of The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World, which students and faculty selected for the 2013 HNU Common Reading Book. In addition to chronicling historic sports and social justice events of the 1960s, this story shares Carlos’ experience with dyslexia, coming of age as a young black man, and the civil rights movement.
Carlos was born in Harlem, New York, in 1945. Carlos says that he was influenced by the poverty, racism, and lack of opportunity that he observed in his childhood. One of his first dreams was to swim in the Olympics, but his focus shifted to track and field after his father talked to him about the hurdles he would face due to racism.
Carlos’ father explained to him that he would not be able to swim at the Olympics because he did not have a place to train. The Harlem River was too dangerous, the public pool was too crowded, and the ocean was too rough. His father also said that he could not join a club, but not because of the cost. “He took his hand out and rubbed on his hand—I thought he had a bug bite. But he was expressing to me that merely because of the color of my skin, I would not be able to represent America,” Carlos said at a presentation to HNU students on November 14.
After graduating from Machine Trade and Medal High School, Carlos went to East Texas State University (ETSU) on a full track and field scholarship. He attended ETSU for one year, winning the Lone Star Conference Championship. After ETSU, he enrolled at San José State University. While a student at San José State University, he participated in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico and won the bronze medal in the 200 meters. During the victory ceremony, Carlos and fellow U.S. medalist Tommie Smith raised a black-gloved fist in protest against racism and economic depression for all opposed peoples.
“Why did I fight back? I didn’t fight for me. I fought for you, I fought for your kids, I fought for my kids, my kids’ kids,” Carlos said. “I went to Mexico City, and I didn’t put my fist in the sky for John Carlos. I put it up for my kids, my kids’ kids, and you all right now today—to have the opportunity to exchange one another’s ideas and thoughts about how we can make this a better society.”
Following the 1968 Summer Olympics, Carlos continued his education and athletic feats at San José State University where he broke the world record in the 100-yard dash and helped win the National Collegiate Athletic Association Track & Field National Championship in 1969. Concluding an illustrious career in track and field, Carlos was drafted by the National Football League (NFL). He entered the public sector after a short career in the NFL, working for PUMA, the Olympics, and the City of Los Angeles.
The week of HNU activities included the presentation of two documentaries on the 1968 Summer Olympics, the Black Student Union event Celebrating Our Legacy of Rhythm, and a public forum featuring Carlos on November 14.