PALM SPRINGS, California (Reuters) - 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 medalist in the 200 meters, and Carlos, the bronze medalist, 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 color 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 counselor 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 counselor.
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.