Sprinter John Carlos won the bronze medal in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, but he is remembered less for that than for what happened afterward when he and teammate Tommie Smith took the medal stand. The pair stepped onto the podium shoeless as a symbol of African-Americans' historical poverty, and, when the national anthem played, they bowed their heads and thrust black-gloved fists to the sky.
The gesture was widely viewed as a black power salute, but Carlos says their raised fists were a protest against injustice and inequality around the world regardless of race or ethnicity. The salutes cost them -- ultraconservative IOC president Avery Brundage, who raised no protest against the Nazis in the 1936 Berlin Olympics when he was president of the USOC, forced their removal from the Olympic Village. They also received death threats.
Carlos continued to race after the Olympics, briefly played pro football and later coached track at the high school level. Now 66 years old and still very outspoken against the injustices he sees, he recently finished his autobiography with Dave Zirin, "The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World."
Carlos talks about the book, the fist salute, Jackie Robinson, the apathy of current athletes, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the superpower he would most like to have:
Q: What prompted you to write the book now?
A: I felt like I was getting old and that it was time to have something coming from me, for my kids and grandkids. There are so many stories about me. I just wanted people to know who I am before leaving this world and the time was right.
Q: What do you think your image was in this country after the fist salute?
A: They thought I was a fire-spitting dragon who hated white people, who hated America. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I was just concerned with right and wrong.
Q: How did that salute change your life?
A: I think it just gave me more visibility in what I've done. It hasn't changed my life. Had that not happened, I would have done the same thing I've done in my life -- I just wouldn't have gotten noticed for it. As far as becoming an icon, that's something that you and others brought on me.
Q: Are athletes more or less outspoken than in your day?
A: They're far less outspoken today. That is a good question that you have to ask them.
Q: I think of your salute and then I think of Michael Jordan and the Dream Team using the flag to cover up another sponsor's logo.
A: It's about the dollar. We went out there for humanity and they went for a fistful of dollars.
Q: Which modern athletes do you admire?
A: Steve Nash. Woodson. [Michael] Strahan. Those athletes have made statements in regards to their social and economic standing in relation to others. And of the older athletes, Jim Brown, of course. Bill Russell. Kareem. Ali. Jackie Robinson.
Q: How did you meet Jackie?
A: When I was a kid. The first memory was when my father introduced him to me. I grew up in Harlem where my father had a shoe shop and Jackie and other players came into his shop. They would play cards. The bottom line is when I met Jackie Robinson it was as my father's friend. Later on, I saw "The Jackie Robinson Story," and Jackie starred as himself in that, and I made the connection with this man being my father's friend. As a youngster going to a movie, they turn the lights down and you want to play and have fun. Then the movie starts and you realize you've met this man, so you want to pay attention and learn. I learned that he went to UCLA, that he served in the armed forces, how he crossed the color line and integrated baseball and became a sacrificial lamb to open the door for everyone else.
Q: How have the Olympics changed since 1968?
A: The way the Olympics have changed is they freed up the money. They let some of the athletes have some money. They let the kids have some money.
I don't think of it as a positive or a negative, it's just the way it is. It's an opportunity to make money. [Back in 1968], they kept us on a tightrope, giving us $2 a day. You would go into the stadium and they would have 80,000 people there and they gave you $2. Most of the guys were married and had responsibilities. We had to represent America but we thought America was not stepping up to the table. It wasn't a racial or ethnic thing. This was across the board, white kids and black kids.
Q: You've spoken at a number of Occupy Wall Street gatherings. What did you say?
A: I told them, why was I there? I am there for them. After 43 years, we're still fighting for the same issues: Equality. For everyone to be able to go to college and get a decent job and flourish in America. Before, it was black people because we were the lowest man on the totem pole, so to speak. Now the circle has widened so much that it includes every ethnic group. They're all wondering whether I will have a job tomorrow, will I be able to pay the mortgage, whether my child can go to college and whether they can pay for college. And the kids out there are not from poor families. They're from wealthy families but they're rebelling. They're saying to their parents, "We had a great life and if you had shared more, more people could have had a great life, too."
Q: I'm in Minnesota today where the owner of the Vikings is looking for a $1.25 billion stadium. What is your opinion of the super-rich owners complaining about high taxes, then demanding public subsidies -- and higher taxes?
A: He wants to put the bill on the back of those people he's fighting against. He wants the stadium and he wants you to pay for it. That's what people are saying -- enough is enough.
Q: Will the movement make a real change?
A: I think anyone who puts up a fight long enough can make a change. If you look at the word consistency, consistency will make change regardless of what you're fighting for.
Q: Finally, this is a question I ask everyone -- Which superpower would you most want to have? The strength of 100 men, the ability to fly, turn invisible or have the speed of Mercury?
A: That’s a hard one, bro. If I was invisible I could get into a lot of things and straighten them out. But when you say the strength of 100 men -- do you mean the strength of 100 men to come together and unify? I would do that, but if it's just brute strength to hold up a building or something, I don't need that.