BOSTON: The hand that John Carlos once raised in a gloved fist was bare, the long fingers spread wide. “People didn’t want to understand what the fist meant,” he said.
And then he explained. “They tried to equate it to the Black Panthers. That was their choice,” the former Olympic exile said on Wednesday. “But if you look at my hand, there’s five fingers, five individuals. They’re versatile but independent. They have no power, but when they are together, they become powerful.
“I think, 40 years later, they’ve started to get the message. We can leave the fist behind us.”
The bronze medallist in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics, Carlos and gold medal-winner Tommie Smith were expelled from the Mexico City Games after using their spots on the victory stand to focus attention to the plight of blacks in America.
Taking the podium shoeless to call attention to poverty, Smith and Carlos raised their fists in black gloves and bowed their heads in prayer instead of looking up at the U.S. flag during the national anthem.
“That was my concern: Not so much how fast Tommie Smith ran, but a nation in peril,”
Smith said as the pair was inducted into the “True Heroes of Sport” Hall of Fame at the Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
The ceremony took place under a video screen showing the iconic image of Smith and Carlos on the medal stand, fists raised. But the picture tells only part of the story.
Cut off from the frame were the runners’ feet and the message of compassion for the poor; instead, all attention was focused on the clenched fists that sent the message of rage to mainstream America.
“A lot of people saw that hand there, a young black man holding a malignant fist,” Smith said. “They focused on the fist, because the fist is the thing that created a sense of militancy. I had no militancy, only a sense of positive action.”
Carlos paid tribute to the largely ignored third athlete on the stand: Australian silver medallist Peter Norman, who also wore a button for the Olympic Project for Human Rights and spoke about his nation’s treatment of Aborigines. All three medalists were ostracized when they returned to their countries.
“He was just as courageous as the two of us raising our fist to the sky,” Carlos said. “He never turned his back to us; he never denounced us. He stood fast from Oct. 16, 1968, until the day he died.”
Smith said unequivocally, “It was all worth it,” as he and Carlos spoke about the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. Smith said he watched the ceremony in tears; Carlos said “it was probably the most remarkable day in my life, outside of my immediate family.”
“I put that ahead of my distinction in Mexico,” he said. “I went to school and saw all the great presidents on the wall and I did not see a president I could relate to. It felt like we had no role in the society. To see Mr. Obama take the oath, I think at that moment, every spirit in my family was with me.
“I’ve always thought that the day would come, and it would come in my lifetime. But for it to happen was monumental.” - AP