The Benjamin and Elaine Whiteley Lecture Series has brought many well-known and renowned names to visit Pacific University so that their own stories could inspire and teach students. Olympian athlete John Carlos was no exception.
A brief biography explained that as a native of Harlem, Carlos had not grown up unfamiliar with the idea of diversity.
There was no safe zone in Carlos’ eyes when he noticed the presence of racism even in his own neighborhood church.
A way that Carlos escaped from the harsh reality that surrounded him in his home and the outside world was through fictional characters.
Carlos recalled “I thought of my friend, Robin Hood,” in the midst of the poverty that laid within Harlem. He added that it was love for his friends and his new role model that pushed him to often steal food from his own kitchen to feed his friends.
Abruptly, Carlos switched gears in his lecture with a simple statement that drew laughter from the crowd, “Now, how I got into track and field.”
“I wasn’t interested in track and field,” began Carlos.
When he first heard the term “Olympics” brought up on the radio, Carlos asked his father what the games were. His father explained that the Olympics were a gathering, a competition of all the world’s best athletes.
Immediately, Carlos told his father that he wanted to and would one day be an Olympic swimmer. But, Carlos said that his father had responded to the dream with “’Because of the color of your skin, you will not be able to represent America.’”
It was years later that Carlos had been told by several mentors that he was a runner.
Carlos showed up to his first day of track and field practice without proper shoes or any kind of equipment that showed he was prepared. However, he learned very quickly that “If I perfect my game, I can have a voice,” said Carlos.
It was when he was invited to represent the United States in the 1968 summer Olympics that Carlos made a name for himself.
In the midst of the civil rights movement, the games were another opportunity to boycott that when first suggested to him, made Carlos angry.
But it was his first encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that made Carlos finally agree to join the boycott. After King had told Carlos that he believed in America and was therefore, in support of the boycott, King further supported with the simple explanation “’You don’t have to harm anyone to make a statement’” said Carlos.
King urged Carlos that it was time for America and all others to “’show love when there was no crisis,’” said Carlos.
So, to voice their support for human rights, Carlos raised his black-gloved fist alongside fellow USA team member Tommy Smith on the finalists’ podium as the national anthem played in Mexico City for Smith receiving the gold medal and Carlos receiving the bronze in the 200 meter dash.
As an overall reason for why Carlos chose to become an activist for human rights alongside Smith, King and others, he concluded, “I want this to be a loving, cohesive society.”