| PALM SPRINGS, California, July 21
PALM SPRINGS, California, July 21 Forty-four
years after American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos
electrified the Mexico City Olympics with their heads-bowed,
arms-raised civil rights protest, they have no regrets about
their controversial gesture.
They were rebuked as unpatriotic and for using the Olympic
platform to make a political statement, but both men say their
stand was for human rights.
Smith, the gold medallist in the 200 metres, and Carlos, the
bronze medallist, were told to leave the Olympic village after
the incident, which many viewed as a Black Power salute.
"I didn't stand there as a black man and say I was solely
concerned about black poverty in South-Central Los Angeles, or
southern Mississippi. I thought about people of colour around
the world who have the same type of poverty," Carlos, 67, said
in an interview at the high school where he now works as a
counsellor in Palm Springs, California.
Only a few months before the 1968 Olympics, civil rights
leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis and the
U.S. was thrown into racial turmoil. The photographs of Smith
and Carlos standing with black-gloved arms raised have become an
icon of the civil rights period.
"Just that picture alone gives so much strength to
individuals that had no strength. It gives them courage that
they didn't know they had," Carlos said.
Four decades after the protest, the United States in 2008
elected Barack Obama the nation's first black president.
But Carlos said the country has not yet overcome the racism
he and Smith were protesting. Incidents such as the Congressman
who yelled "You lie!" at Obama when he addressed Congress in
2009, and those who doubt Obama's birth on U.S. soil, show a
lack of respect that Carlos calls bigotry.
"It gave America an opportunity to see that the problems
that I've been fighting against are not dead, they're still
running rampant," said Carlos, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with
a raised fist and a baseball cap with Africa on it.
'FULL OF POLITICS'
Critics have called the 1968 protest racially divisive, and
some people have faulted Smith and Carlos for showing a lack of
respect for the U.S. flag and anthem.
But Tommie Smith, 68, during a trip to London earlier this
month told Reuters in a video interview that he viewed the
Olympic platform was appropriate for his 1968 protest.
"It was so ideal that people viewed it as very negative and
we were vilified because of it," Smith said.
"Them believing that the Olympic Games is only used for
competition and no involvement in politics. Whereas the Olympic
Games was full of politics," he said.
Carlos agreed with that assessment. He cited, as examples of
politics in the games, the playing of national anthems and the
fact the United States has traditionally refused to dip its flag
before the leaders of the host country.
He spoke to Reuters from behind his wood desk at Palm
Springs High, where he has worked for over 20 years. Family
photos, images of the Olympic rings and a picture of the late
Malcolm X adorned the wall next to him, at his office in the far
corner of a school portable where students come for guidance.
Growing up in New York, Carlos said he used to tag along as
black nationalist leader Malcolm X went from one speaking
engagement to the next, and hurried to keep up with the
swift-footed spokesman for the Nation of Islam.
These days, Carlos dodges the heat in Palm Springs, where
the temperature goes well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the
summer. He drives his 1993 Cadillac to the door of the portable
that is his office, so that when he leaves he can get behind the
car's tinted windows and stay cool.
He once coached track athletes, but in recent years he has
focused on his job as a counsellor.
After years spent in relative obscurity working odd jobs
such as nightclub security guard and garden caretaker, Carlos
remains a public figure. He recently came back from a speaking
tour in Britain ahead of the London Olympic Games.
In television footage from an interview shortly after the
1968 protest, Smith said the black gloves he and Carlos raised
in the air represented black America.
But Carlos says the protest was not only for oppressed
blacks but also other people, as a human rights statement. "I
think the black glove symbolized the fact that we were black
people as a whole that had a quest for humanity," he said.
His 1968 silent protest has been commemorated in a school
mural painted by students. While Carlos said he is proud of his
work, he once refused to sign his mark on a supervisor's review
that described him as a "role model to black and brown kids."
"I had to confront him about that because ... I deal with
all kids," he said. "I probably got more white kids around here
that love me over my tenure than most of the minority kids."
(Editing by Greg McCune.)