When 50,000 people — many young, many poor, overwhelmingly African- American — marched in Jena, La., last Thursday, the political impact was felt around the country. Marching on behalf of six young men known as the Jena 6, who face prison time for a schoolyard fight, the case held an echo of past civil rights movements. At the center of it all is Dr. John Carlos.
A legend in Track and Field — he’s a world record holder in the 100-yard dash and a member of the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame — Dr. Carlos made history with his black-gloved first salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics alongside Tommie Smith. As a teenager in Harlem, he used his world-class speed to bring messages to Malcolm X. As part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, he spoke with Dr. Martin Luther King weeks before his assassination. Today Carlos, a guidance counselor in Palm Springs, Calif., looks around, and the man who has seen everything cannot believe his eyes.
“It’s the old demons,” he told SI.com. “The old demons of race relations that perpetuate it appears to me that only did they not die, but that they have resurrected themselves through out the United States.”
Carlos feels a sense of frustration with “ministers” and “so-called leaders of the black community” as he puts it, who show up for the big protests in places like Jena, but aren’t there when the cameras are off. “These leaders today,” he said, “they remind me of tow truck drivers. A tow truck driver is the first one to show up on the scene when there is an accident sometimes. It’s true they have and sometimes show up at the scene before even the police. But can they actually fix the cars? Do they have grease under the fingernails? Will they be there to help the families once the car is towed away?”
Dr. Carlos said he felt the need to speak after the marches in Jena. He feels a certain joy in seeing people respond to injustice with action, not apathy.
“I understand why we marched in Jena,” he said. “Because the six are so young because it is such a terrible double standard. The world is seeing it: When white jump on black, they didn’t face attempted murder charges. When black jump on white, the world falls upon them. I was glad to see them to come together. These young people, they are a new breed. A lot of people thought these young people wouldn’t march like we did. But since 2005 with Katrina, there is a feeling of enough is enough.”
And yet Dr. Carlos feels a sense of melancholy that there even needs to be a Civil Rights movement in the 21st century. “I can’t believe we still have to be marching,” he said. “I can’t believe how injustice has taken root and has become normal. It appears that there is a message being sent that we can’t go anywhere, aren’t worth anything. And that’s not just black people. It’s brown people. It’s poor white people. It’s the millions of our kids who go to school every day in the wealthiest country in the world and don’t even have books. We are raising a generation with no knowledge, no chance. If people are products of their environment, we are in a great deal of trouble. We see no money for books but they keep building these prisons.”
He also worries about the limits of protest to ensure lasting change. “Now 50,000 people marched and that young man is still in jail,” Dr. Carols said. “We need to have our eyes on the prize. We need our young people also hitting them where it hurts. Not just marching, but figuring out ways to do the unexpected. In 1968, that’s what we did. You have to do what’s contrary to norm to give them something to think about. We have to give them something to think about because we had the audacity to act. I want to see people marching on the courthouse. I want them using their minds to do the unexpected, to make people in power think long and hard about the weight we are carrying.”
What makes Dr. John Carlos formidable is that he refused to live his life as an icon, a museum piece to be dusted off when Olympics or anniversaries roll around. He wants to be a voice for change in the here and now. He wants to use his reputation to be heard. It’s an example and a lesson for today’s athletes to note. “We’re not on earth to be robots,” he said to me several years ago. “Whether people like it or not.”
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” . You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com