Olympian tells personal stories of facing racism
When John Carlos was young, he saw a white police officer hit an African-American man sleeping on the ground with his baton to wake him up.
“It put me into shock. [I wondered] why did that happened? Why didn’t he do that a different way?” said the 1968 Olympic Bronze track and field medalist, who infamously raised his fist at the podium to salute the Black Power Movement.
Carlos knew something was wrong when his father first told him all people in the world are not treated equal.
“I started thinking something’s broken, something isn’t right,” he said to University students and faculty Friday in the Lucy Stone Hall auditorium on Livingston campus while sharing his experience growing up with racial inequalities.
Carlos realized to what extent people were treated differently when he watched a fire department destroy an African-American family’s home.
“Someone ran and called the fire department because they saw smoke coming out a window,” he said. “So the fire department comes … with their axes, and they’re throwing furniture out the window, they’re throwing clothes out the window.”
He was confused as to why the firemen were throwing things outside if there was no fire and nothing burning.
“It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. It made me understand right then at a very early age that if you’re not in the equation, nobody’s thinking about you,” he said.
As Carlos experienced discrimination growing up, he found himself fighting for equality through boycott demonstrations and protests.
“You can’t let people dictate to you and not use your brain, [but] you have to say I have a brain to determine what’s right or wrong,” he said.
Carlos said a few of his teammates discussed boycotting the Olympic games while riding on a train. They decided to display Black Power banners on the side of the train to begin their boycott.
“As we were rolling and everyone saw these banners, they start shooting missiles and firebombs at the train,” he said. “And the train is smoking, the train’s on fire. I see everyone was in a panic and saw a lot of people through the smoke jumping, bailing.”
The fire on the train burned Carlos, but he went on to participate in the Olympic games where he silently protested racial discrimination with his salute.
Steven Miller, a professor in the University’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies, said Carlos’ actions largely affected the country.
“The impact that this one act of civil disobedience had on the country and the world is immeasurable,” Miller said. “It not only brought recognition to the plights of African Americans, but also it showed that you can do things in a non-violent constructive way.”
Kristen Ferris, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said she found Carlos’ account of his life moving and finds it to be relevant today.
“Today you still see these things happening,” she said. “I feel like our society’s moving in a more positive direction, but there’s still evidence of what he was going through today, and you still see it.”
Miller said it is important for University students to understand the plight of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement so history does not repeat itself.
“There are people who come before you who had laid the path out for you to be able to become the person you are and make the country the way it is,” he said. “[John] Carlos is one of those people.”