Extending the Track

Forty-six years ago at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos sped down the 200-meter track, winning gold and bronze for America with  times of 19.83 and 20.1 seconds, respectively. At the podium after the race, Smith and Carlos lowered their heads and raised their fists. The gesture was immediately both iconic and controversial: the supposed “Black Power” salute earned Smith and Carlos expulsion from the Olympic Village and removal from the U.S. National Team.

But on Saturday, John Carlos explained that his salute was to human rights, not black power. “We stood for human rights, the existence of human rights,” said Carlos. “The only black power was me running down that track. But because black people got together they had to discredit it…the government started calling us black militants, and the other people started backing away from us. We were isolated.”

At Bronzeville’s Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, John Carlos addressed a group of about forty track coaches, young athletes, and other South Side community members. The Friends of Track and Field association organized the event; its purpose was to attract local attention to the task of revitalizing track and field in low-income neighborhoods. The association had news of its own: it had just secured $20 million from the city to build a new track facility in Roseland.

Founding member and financier Elzie Higginbottom referenced a history of inferior facilities for Chicago Public School students. “When I ran track at Bloom [High School] in Chicago Heights we were always glad to run against Chicago Public School kids,” said Higginbottom. “We had an indoor fieldhouse and they didn’t—they had to run in the halls. And they all came in with bruises from running into the hallways.”

Carlos also spoke of a history of inequality. “Growing up in Harlem, we had every ethnic group, you could see everyone walking down Lenox Avenue—Italian, Irish, Jewish, black.” But the white community began moving out in the late 1950s. “They were living in one building and their housekeepers were living in the next building over and they said at some point, ‘We got to move.’ ”

Addressing a largely older, African-American audience, Carlos spoke about the problems of joblessness and drug use he had witnessed in Harlem in the 1950s. “There was very little responsibility for a black man to have, very little opportunity to feel like a ‘captain of the ship.’ Every day he heads home and his wife asks ‘Did you find anything?’ and he says ‘No, I didn’t find anything.’ And one day he looks in the mirror and he doesn’t like what he sees. And [the heroin dealers] say: ‘Hey man take this—help you forget.’ And it’s like somebody pulled the stop out of the plug and we all been funneling down for sixty years…”

But his message was also one of exhortation: his own moment of defiance at the 1968 Olympics, he said, had been inspirational for black youth, and he encouraged the audience to set the standards for future generations.

“Whatever you do,” said Carlos, “kids are looking at you. When they walk with their pants around their ankles, and you say nothing, they’re looking at you. When they disrespect their girlfriends and their wives, they’re looking at you. But when you do something right, when you take a stand, they’re looking at you too.”

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