Five decades ago, as the Star-Spangled Banner played, Olympian John Carlos stood on the victory box at the Mexico City games and thrust his black-gloved fist skyward.
He and teammate Tommie Smith were ostracized and ridiculed for the gesture.
On Friday, the 72-year-old Carlos sat on a stage at Kansas City’s Central Academy of Excellence and likened that historic moment to the day in September 2016 when NFL player Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the playing of the national anthem.
“At the time, the Olympics was the only place to protest,” Carlos said. “I wanted to reach the far corners of the earth. It was my internet. I was trying to reach as many people as I could. When Colin Kaepernick made that statement (by kneeling), the world saw him, the world saw what he did.”
Carlos, along with track and field Olympians Maurice Greene, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and Muna Lee, a Central Academy graduate, were invited to the school to talk with students about social consciousness in light of the current national debate over NFL players’ right to take a knee or sit in protest during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
Anthony Madry, Central’s principal, said he wanted students to see “the significance of knowing history” and how it relates to their lives in real time. Having the Olympians talk with his students, Madry said, could be enough to help some realize the importance of their education.
Carlos said his 1968 Olympic protests, and the players’ protests today, are the same, and the message — to bring attention to the oppression of people of color in this country and to force change — is the same.
“When I raised my fist, when I raised my voice,” Carlos said, “I raised it for all of us. It’s your responsibility as an athlete” because athletes have a platform and the attention of the world.
It is also a successful athlete’s responsibility, Greene said, to spend time talking with today’s youth about how they too can be successful.
“Do what you can do well,” he said.
“The thing I want to give over to you all is that if I didn’t believe I could do it, I would not have won,” said Greene, who won the 100 meters bronze and silver in the sprint relay at the 2004 Summer Olympics. “Overcome all the negativity and believe in yourself and you can rise up out of any situation.”
Lee, a seven-time NCAA champion at Louisiana State University, recalled her days running track as a student at Central, and told the students about being poor and how her coach sometimes had to bring her food because she didn’t have money.
She also told them that her fellow students raised money to pay for her to travel to track competitions. “I am just like y’all,” said Lee, 36. “If I can go places, you can go places, too.”
Carlos said he always knew his purpose in 1968 was to shed light on inequality in the U.S.
“I wasn’t there for the race,” Carlos said.
Track and field, he said, “was an apparatus for me to get to that victory stand and to say I have never forgotten” the discrimination, oppression, broken homes and poverty witnessed growing up in Harlem, the son of Cuban parents.
And while he was largely ostracized by the sports world, Carlos did try for an NFL career and played a stint with the Canadian Football League. In 2003, he was inducted in the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame.
When he put his fist in the air, Carlos said, he knew it would come with some consequence. He was criticized by the media and received death threats. But it didn’t matter to him, he said.
“The deed was done,” Carlos told the students. “They could even take my life but they can never take that away. When I stepped off that victory stand I knew no one would ever put shackles on John Carlos’ mind and I was truly liberated on that day.”
Carlos said he believes that while Kaepernick and other ball players are being criticized by many, including President Donald Trump who last month said NFL owners should fire players who kneel, years from now they may be seen as civil rights heroes.
“The purpose of any demonstration is to be like a light house… shine a light far beyond where you stand,” Carlos said.
“When you participate in a demonstration it should be heard on the other side of the world. And every one has to do their part. This is about humanity and morality and ain’t no color in that.”