Civil rights activist, former Olympic athlete to deliver series of speeches
Lucas Masin-Moyer | Thursday, April 5, 2018
Forty-eight years before former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled in protest of police brutality in America during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, John Carlos and Tommie Smith — who had just won bronze and gold medals respectively in the 200-meter race in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City — also staged a protest during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The two athletes raised their gloved fists throughout the anthem in protest of racial discrimination in the United States.
In events spanning the four days from Wednesday through Saturday, Carlos — in his third visit to Notre Dame — has spoken and will speak about his protest 50 years later as part of a University initiative, “1968: A Movement in Time.”
Carlos met with members of the community Wednesday at the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture in downtown South Bend, will address faculty and staff at two separate events in Washington Hall on Thursday and will deliver the keynote address at “The Black Man’s Think Tank” — sponsored by The Wabruda — on Saturday in the Dahnke Ballroom.
Carlos said 1968 represented a coming-together of various forces which helped spark his protest.
“Apartheid was running rampant at that time, the Vietnam war was at that time, you had the stripping of Muhammad Ali’s awards and his belt at that time, we were still fighting for housing and all the things that America put out there for its citizens,” he said. “ … You might say it was a puzzle and my participation was just a piece of that puzzle in terms of dealing with human rights.”
This protest, Carlos said, was in part motivated by advice Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave him months before the Olympics and weeks before King’s assassination in Memphis.
“He said to me something that turned my life around and gave me focus in terms of what I’d been doing all my life,” Carlos said. “[King] said, ‘John, I have to go back and stand for those who can’t stand for themselves.’”
Carlos said King described to him how to make an impact while still being peaceful.
“My focus was to develop some sort of statement … where we were sending waves out throughout society because it was about a humanitarian issues,” Carlos said.
Carlos said he saw the spirit of his and Smith’s protest in Kaepernick’s initial protests and subsequent activism.
“The first thing I said to Mr. Kaepernick when I met him is that he is my hero, I admire him, I see myself in him, I think that he is a very learned individual, I don’t [think] he popped off and took a knee without a basis for it,” Carlos said.
While Carlos said he warned Kaepernick about the initial reaction to high-profile protests, he urged him to stay the course and continue fighting.
“I told him there will be dissent and people will walk away from him, but don’t worry about them walking away,” he said. “The game hasn’t changed, they walked away from me, too, but today they’re running and jumping over each other to sit down with me and get a picture.”
These negative reactions to activist athletes, Carlos said, are evident with the recent charging of Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Michael Bennett with assaulting an elderly woman at the 2017 Super Bowl, despite no video evidence and over a year since the crime had allegedly been committed.
“I don’t think Mr. Bennett had any ill harm or intentions of hurting that woman, I think that it’s an unfortunate situation,” he said. “I think they’re trying to blow the situation out of proportion based on who he is and what he’s standing for and the fact that he’s getting ready to come out with his new book. I think this is a tactic to break him down and slow him down, but society will realize he has a tremendous amount of support behind him.”
In addition to being inspired by activist athletes, Carlos said young activists fighting for humanitarian causes as he had across the country made him optimistic about the nation’s future.
“I think that we have far more people that have a clear mind for themselves today, they’re not letting the headlines lead their [thought] process,” he said. “ … A lot more young people are stepping up to the plate just as I did 50 years ago — I was 23 years old. You look at kids today, 15, 16, 17 years old making statements, that’s critical to society today.”