Black Power salute: ‘God chose me to pass the message’

Two members of the American team Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right) were ordered to leave Mexico within 48 hours after they bowed their heads and raised clenched fists clothed in black gloves at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games medals ceremony on October 16, 1968 in solidarity with the American civil rights movement.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • John Carlos speaks to Nation Sport in Nairobi when he attended the Absa Kip Keino Classic meet and also reunited with Kenyan sprints legend Charles Asati
  • During the podium ceremony on October 16, 1968 at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, as the American national anthem played, athletics great John Carlos and Tommie Smith bowed their heads and raised black-gloved clenched fists in solidarity with the civil rights movement.After executing the Black Power salute, the two were sent home unceremoniously and were banned from the Olympics 

When retired American track and field legends John Carlos and Tommie Smith bowed their heads and raised clenched fists clothed in black gloves at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games medals ceremony on October 16, 1968 in solidarity with American civil rights movement, they did not know that that simple act would alienate them from the sport they so loved.

The two sprinters would be sent home unceremoniously and were banned from the Olympics for life. However, the black American community celebrated them for sacrificing their personal glory for the cause at a time racism was a big problem in America.

Charles Asati and John Carlos

Charles Asati (right), gold medallist in 4×400 metres relay at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games shares a light moment with John Carlos of USA, bronze medallist in the 200 metres at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games at Safari Park Hotel on May 12, 2023 on the eve of Absa Kip Keino Classic. 

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

It was a small price Carlos had been prepared to pay. As a child, he had interacted with American civil rights stalwart Malcolm X, and it clearly rubbed off on him.

Later, he met Martin Luther King Junior who was one of the most prominent leaders in the American civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination on April 4, 1968.

“I am humbled and honoured to have been that person who shed light on the lives of others, to give them hope,” Carlos, who was in Kenya as a guest of the Kenyan leg of the World Athletics Continental Tour Gold (Absa Kip Keino Classic), told Nation Sport on Saturday in Nairobi.

He was born John Wesley Carlos on June 5, 1945 in Harlem, New York to an American father Earl V. Carlos, and Jamaican mother Vioris Lawrence at a time racism was rife in America.

Carlos directed his energy and talent towards sports and entertainment as did many young black Americans at the time. He was a talented swimmer and won many competitions in New York, but racism turned him away from swimming to track and field. He would later join the athletics team at East Texas State University.

What motivated Carlos and Smith to execute the Black Power salute?

“We had planned to boycott the Olympic Games as a way of standing in solidarity with the civil rights movement, but we changed our mind so as not to put to waste years of training and preparations by the athletes chasing Olympic medals. So we decided to attend the games, and use the victory parade to pass out message.

“Someone told me, John if you stay at home and miss the victory parade they are going to put someone in your place, but he will not represent you the way you want to be represented. So we went to the games,” he said.

Smith won a gold medal in 200 metres at the Games, and Carlos claimed bronze. They were joined in the Black Power salute by silver medallist, Peter Norman from Australia.

“The medal had no significance to me other than the fact that I had to win a medal so as to be on the victory parade. I also think if I had won the race, Smith would not have been strong enough to join me in the demonstration. After the race was over, I told myself it was time for me to do what I came here to do. I shared the same with Smith, and he told me he was with me. The rest is history,” he said.

On the podium ceremony that same evening, when the American national anthem played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved clenched fists.

After executing the Black Power salute during the victory parade, Smith and Carlos were sent home unceremoniously, and were banned from the Olympics for life.

“After we made the demonstration, it was chaos and mayhem. People who had thought we were good college boys who had gone to the games to represent America now thought we were trouble makers.

“God chose me to pass the message, but he also gave me stepping stones. I had met Malcolm X when I was a young kid and I had a year and a half to soak up enough knowledge. And 10 days before the 1968 Olympic Games, I had an opportunity to be with Martin Luther King Junior before he was assassinated."

"What I learnt from both is that I could create something so powerful yet non-violent. He told me I could change the course of the world because you have their attention, and you don’t have to kill, maim or injure anyone."

"Everything we did was a symbol. The shoes, no shoes, black socks, the beads on my head, the black scarf, my jacket being open, and I had a black jersey to cover my USA uniform."

"We removed our shoes to show that there were many poor people out there without shoes in the greatest country in the world. Black socks represented black America, and the beads on my neck represented the many people in America that had been lynched."

"I had a black jersey on top of my uniform because I was ashamed of America. Smith had a black scarf on his head to represent black pride."

“I was bewildered on the victory stand as a young adult. I left the victory stand knowing that I had been chosen by God to do what I had done.”

Interestingly, Carlos had a premonition of the events of that evening of October 16, 1968 in Mexico City.

“I had a prelude to what was going to happen but I could not understand it till after it had happened. As a kid, I had a vision in which I was in a grass field and I could hear people talking happily but I couldn’t see them. I was standing on a box, nobody else but me. I thought I must have done something to make those people happy. As a kid, it made me feel good to know you can make adults happy. But when I tried to wave, my hair froze in time, and the happiness turned into venom."

"The people started booing, taunting me, and spitting at me, throwing things at me. I was shocked. The feeling stayed with me till dinner time, my dad realised I was not myself and I told him I had been to the movies. Fifteen years later we were on the victory stand (at 1968 Olympics), and the exact thing that had happened in a vision happened at that particular time and I told myself ‘wow! That was what that movie had been about’ because here it is, happening live,” Carlos said.

Fond memories of Kenya

He has fond memories of Kenya. Last week’s visit to the country came 46 years since the first in 1977.

“I first came here in 1977. I am so happy to be back. The people here are as jovial as they have always been. I missed all the bright smiles and the people. It feels good to be back.”

He is happy with the evolution of the sprint races.

“After 1968 Olympics, things got a bit different and there were attempts to break all the records we had set, then things changed. The competitions are a lot more equal now than they were in the past. Back in our time, the winners would be out in a flash and go a far distance ahead of us but today, a lot of the athletes are running pretty much the same time which makes the races are more competitive. In our time, we had a lot of meets coming and we used them to train, so we didn’t need a lot of training sessions.

“Basically, we didn’t receive any money during my time. What we got was a gratuity. Today, athletes make a lot of money, but that is in the top tier. In my time we didn’t have coaches, managers and agents to pay but now we have professional athletes.”

The highlight of his visit to Kenya was his reunion with Charles Asati, a member of Kenya’s 4x400m relay team that won a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and silver in 1968 Games in Mexico.

“It’s so beautiful to meet somebody here who ran in my time. If I could turn back the hands of the clock, we would tell beautiful stories from 1968 in Mexico,” Carlos said.

Asati, who also graced the Kip Keino Classic as a guest, said: “It’s a pleasure meeting Carlos again here for the first time since 1968. He did a lot to change the world through the Black Power salute at a time racism was rife in America.”

In 2005, San Jose State University started a fund-raising to erect a unique statue to honour Smith and Carlos. In 2016, the two were invited to the White House by the then President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. They had finally achieved a recognition denied to them in 1968.

Norman who went to the victory parade wearing a small badge that read “Olympic Project for Human Rights” – an organisation set up a year previously opposed to racism in sport, however, remains largely recognised for his role in the Black Power salute. He did not compete at the Olympics again. He died of a heart attack on October 9, 2006.