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John Carlos, 1968 Olympic U.S. Medalist, on the Revolutionary Sports Moment that Changed the World

StoryOctober 12, 2011
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Almost half a century after his famous raised-fist salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, John Carlos has authored a new memoir with sportswriter Dave Zirin, “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World.” Olympic medal winners in the 200 meter race, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute during the national anthem at the Olympic prize ceremony as a protest against racism in the United States. Seen around the world, the Black Power salute on the Olympic medal stand sparked controversy and an eventual career fallout. “I wasn’t there for the race. I was there to actually make a statement,” Carlos says. “I was ashamed of America for America’s deeds, what they were doing in history, as well as what they were doing at that particular time.” [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a new memoir by the international civil rights icon John Carlos. In 1968, Olympic medal winner John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute during the national anthem at the Olympic prize ceremony as a protest against racism in the United States. The moment is documented in the film Not Just a Game, narrated by sportswriter Dave Zirin.

ANNOUNCER: There’s Questad. It’s a good start. And Carlos, as usual, has burst out of the blocks. Tommie Smith, running pretty well so far. And in lane two, Bambuck is strong. On the outside is Edwin Roberts. It’s John Carlos right now. It’s Carlos and Smith. And here comes Tommie Smith! Smith has done it! And his hands in the air!

DAVE ZIRIN: They won a gold and a bronze medal at the '68 Olympics. And what they did next couldn't stand in starker contrast to today’s depoliticized, sanitized and hyper-commercialized sports world. They didn’t pull a Jordan at the 1968 Olympics and use our platform on the global stage to protect an endorsement deal. No, these guys had a point to make. As they walked to the platform, they took off their shoes and carried them to protest poverty in America. They wore beads to protest lynching. And John Carlos even unzipped his jacket, a violation of Olympic protocol, to represent, as he told me, his working buddies, black and white, back home in New York City. And in perhaps the most famous gesture in Olympic history, they raised their fists during the national anthem to show solidarity with the civil rights movement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Seen around the world, the Black Power salute on the Olympic medal stand sparked controversy and career fallout. David Zirin’s documentary film Not Just a Game also features an interview that John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave shortly after the Olympic incident.

BBC INTERVIEWER: At the same time, cynics might say that you’ve got it all: you’ve got publicity, you’ve got medals, you’ve obviously got martyrdom, as well. What do you say to that?

JOHN CARLOS: I can’t eat that, and the kids around my block that grew up with me, they can’t eat it, and the kids that’s going to grow up after them. They can’t eat publicity. They can’t eat gold medals, as Tommie Smith said. All we ask for is equal chance to be a human being. And, as far as I see now, we’re five steps below the ladder, and every time we try and touch the ladder, they put their foot on our hands and don’t want us to climb up.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Olympic medalist John Carlos just a few weeks after he won the Olympic bronze medal in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Well, more than half a century after his Olympic salute, John Carlos has published a memoir in collaboration with sportswriter Dave Zirin. It’s called The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World.

John Carlos remains a lifelong human rights activist, founding member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Dave Zirin is the sports columnist for The Nation magazine. You may know him as the host of Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius/XM. Dave Zirin is also featured in the documentary Not Just a Game, based on his bestselling book People’s History of Sports in the United States, which places American sports at the center of some of the major political debates and struggles of our time. Well, today, for the rest of this hour, John Carlos is with us, along with Dave Zirin himself.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! John Carlos—

JOHN CARLOS: We’re honored to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. Take us back to Mexico City. These were very, very difficult times for people in Mexico City, the Olympics of 1968.

JOHN CARLOS: Well, as I recall, going back to Mexico City was high tension, trauma, you might say a powder keg, because prior to us going to the Olympics, the United States team, they had a massacre take place in Mexico City. They killed hundreds upon hundreds of young students and young activists that was trying to circumvent the fact that there were so many people in poverty in Mexico, and they were concerned about what would happen to the revenues from the Olympic Games, whether it was going to help the people. They wanted them to leave that area because that’s where the Olympic activities were going to take place. And I think someone gave the order to clean, by any means necessary. And in the interim, so many young individuals lost their lives. You know, we never really had a clear estimate as to how many died. They said it was 50 at first. Then it went up to 150, then up to 350. Now what my estimation is, is close to 2,200. They killed so many—

AMY GOODMAN: The Tlatelolco massacre.

JOHN CARLOS: Absolutely. They killed so many young individuals. They threw their bodies in the furnace, where they would burn their trash. And then, those that they couldn’t put in there, they took out in the ocean and dropped. In the meantime, they scattered the other individuals and ran them up in the hills and told them to stay there until the games were over.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you know this at the time?

JOHN CARLOS: Yes, we knew that something had taken place. We didn’t know to the extent of it until we got to Mexico City. And years later, we found out that it looked like there was a connection to try and have four individuals to become involved, such as Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, Professor Edwards and I, to get involved with the youngsters at that particular time. Maybe we would go to Mexico City ahead of the team, and then maybe we all would disappear at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: You were about the same age.

JOHN CARLOS: Oh, yes. We were—you know, I just turned 23 at that time. Mr. Smith had just turned 24. Mr. Norman had just turned 25.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, this time, for you, was the culmination of your life work in sports. Talk about how you ended up at the Olympics.

JOHN CARLOS: Well, it looks like God put me on a path from the beginning, as a young kid, to be an activist, before you even knew what activism was. He had me on a stair step to meet so many people of notoriety or fame, or what have you, to meet Malcolm X, to meet Adam Clayton Powell, to meet Dr. King 10 days before he lost his life, to know that Dr. King felt that we were on the right trail by attempting an Olympic boycott, for him to come and say that he wanted to call a meeting because he would like to take part in supporting this Olympic boycott, had he come back from Memphis. Unfortunately, he didn’t return, but the spirit of him was on that victory stand with John Carlos, no doubt.

We felt it was something that was necessary to make a statement to society that all is not well, although we would travel all over the world and we always had the happy face and the U.S.A. all across our chest to give indication that everything is smooth in America. But in fact, it wasn’t smooth, as smooth as they wanted the world to believe. So when we went to the Olympic Games, it was—we felt that everyone’s conscience was asleep, on both sides of the street. And we felt that we needed to do something that would be so shocking and so revealing that it would wake people at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to question: why would these individuals put their careers, their lives, their futures on the line to make a statement such as this? We felt that it was for our kids and our kids’ kids. Anything that we do today is not for us; it’s for our future, for the future of all men.

AMY GOODMAN: So describe the race and then describe the moment.

JOHN CARLOS: Well, the race—the race was just an act. You know, we had to qualify to go to the victory stand. That was the most important thing, to get to the victory stand. I think once we decided that we were going to make some sort of statement, the race was secondary in my mind relative to me saying I have to go and win the carrot, so to speak. I just needed to get a place on the victory stand. Relative to the race itself, I wanted those individuals that had bet on me over the years—you know, we always had individuals that bet on the various races—to let them know, if I wanted this race, it was my race to have. But I wasn’t there for the race. I was there to actually make a statement. I looked around the race to tell my partner to “Come on, man. Step it up.” And he did.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. What do you mean you looked around? While you were running?

JOHN CARLOS: Yes, ma’am. I looked around a number of times.

AMY GOODMAN: You looked back?


AMY GOODMAN: You’re not supposed to do that.

JOHN CARLOS: Well, that’s what they say in the conventional way of competition: you’re not supposed to look back. But I don’t think we did anything conventional that day. So, you know, I did what I had to do. God blessed us. We was accomplished, in terms of making the victory stand. And then, you know, I had flashbacks, in terms of a vision that I had as a kid, the message that I got from Dr. King, the stories that my dad gave me about the First World War, and then the experiences I had as a young black kid growing up in Harlem, and what I’ve grown to learn about America and America’s history.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the stand, the medal stand.


AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who you were there with and what exactly you did.

JOHN CARLOS: OK. Well, the winner was Tommie Smith, gold medal winner. Silver medal winner was a fellow from Australia, my brother, my friend, Peter Norman, the fastest man, I think, in Australian history. And then, yours truly, John Carlos. Peter acknowledged who we were. He understood our desires and needs in society. He chose to wear an Olympic Project for Human Rights button—proudly, I might add.

Mr. Smith and I, we took various artifacts out there to try and illustrate certain points that we wanted to get across to society, which we really never got a chance to expose to the general public. But we wore the black glove out there primarily because this is the first time the Olympics was in color, Technicolor. So we wanted to be no doubt as to who we were representing first. We were representing our race first, and then we was representing the United States second. We felt like the power sign—most people felt like, you know, when you say “power,” they think about destructive, tear down, burn it down. But it wasn’t about that. It was like this five individuals of color, both of them—all of them sharp. All of them have a paradigm as to how this world could be better, but not one of them could step out from the five and think that he can move a pebble by himself. We needed to come together in terms of being unified to do something. So when these five individuals realized this and came together, then that’s where the power comes in, because now they have enough power and a vision to move a mountain, opposed to trying to move this pebble. That’s what we were trying to illustrate with the glove and the fist.

A second thing is, I had on beads on my neck. The beads were supposed to be illustrating the individuals that had lost their lives through hanging throughout the South. Many black individuals had been hung just merely because of the color of their skin or because they looked at a white woman at that particular time. We could not go and do something as courageous as this and not remember them.

The next thing, Mr. Smith had a black scarf on his shirt, on his neck. And his black scarf was to remember all the individuals that came through the maiden voyage, that was thrown off the ships or thrown off the island to the sharks, that no one ever said a prayer for or remembered in history.

Then I wore a black shirt over my U.S.A. uniform because, to be quite frank, I was ashamed of America for America’s deeds, what they were doing in history, as well as what they were doing at that particular time to us by expressing our feelings. This is the land of the free, they told me, from grade school. And then, when I got to the victory stand, it appeared that it wasn’t the land of the free.

And then, we rolled our pants’ legs up. We wore our black socks and no shoes to illustrate the poverty of many kids through the South in the '60s—and I'm sure a lot of them are still doing it today—walking 10, 20 miles to and from school every day with no shoes—in the greatest nation in the planet, and we had this taking place. And then, we wore the shoe out there, took the shoe out there, put the shoe as a symbol of an individual company that was compassionate and wasn’t concerned about whether you was a superstar. They gave shoes to those that needed shoes for whatever their endeavors were in track and field.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: How do you think the position of African Americans now compares to what it was then in 1968?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, you know, it’s a big difference now in terms of dollars. You know, America is focused on dollars more than they focus on humanity or more than they focus on moral rights. So, many individuals are fearful that if I step out and make political statements, it might affect me financially. But yet, we still have superstars that lay that to the side, such as Mr. Nash, such as Mike—

DAVE ZIRIN: Michael Strahan.

JOHN CARLOS: —Strahan.


JOHN CARLOS: Yeah, we have quite a few athletes that steps out now. And with the Twitter and the Facebook, a lot of them are stepping out a lot more now in terms of trying to exemplify who they are and realize that we are part of society, although we’re superstars in the world of sports. So we have many individuals that’s doing it. The only difference with myself and the average individual athlete is that I chose to use Mexico City as a platform because it was the greatest platform in the world to expose the troubles or the ills of society to the world.

AMY GOODMAN: You also bowed your heads.

JOHN CARLOS: Well, we bowed our heads in respect to, you know, the flag. You know, the flag says a lot, and the anthem says a lot. And, you know, you bow your head in a silent prayer that one day they can stand up to what the anthem says: justice and freedom for all, equality for everyone. It wasn’t that way. Well, we had a prayer that maybe one day, by our actions, that this will come about.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to find out the reaction of the Olympics, the head of the Olympics, the rumors that you had been stripped of your medals right after, and then what this meant for your life and for people in this country.

JOHN CARLOS: Fantastic [inaudible]. Check it out.

AMY GOODMAN: John Carlos is our guest, the Olympic medalist in 1968 who, together with Tommie Smith, put his hand up in the Black Power salute on the Olympic medal stand. We’ll also find out about Peter Norman, how he participated, find out is it true that there just wasn’t an extra glove for him, that he wanted to wear one, too. We’ll find that out in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests today are John Carlos, the Olympic medalist, 1968, famous around the world, perhaps the most famous symbol that has ever come out of the Olympics, the Black Power salute on the Olympic medal stand, together with Tommie Smith. Dave Zirin with us, as well, well-known sportswriter. They together have written this book, The John Carlos Story.

So, you’re on the Olympic stand. You have your hands up in the Black Power salute. Your heads are bowed. You’re wearing a black shirt. You are there without your shoes on. You’ve got the beads on to remember lynching. And you’ve got a shoe on the stand—


AMY GOODMAN: —that you’ve put.

JOHN CARLOS: We took the Puma shoe out there, and we wanted the world to know that the Puma shoe company had supported black athletes throughout the—at least my tenure in track and field, you know, all the way from my high school days. They wasn’t concerned about whether you was a superstar in order to receive a pair of their product. They realized very early that in order for their product to sell, the individuals that’s trying to come into the sport, break into the sport, needed shoes to wear. They had no reservation about giving the shoes. I guess they gave millions of dollars of product away to these individuals to wear.

They gave me a job when I lost my job, going to Trinidad the first time, because Pan Am went on strike, and I couldn’t come home. And when I didn’t have a job and my wife was pregnant, first thing I did was go to the Beconta Corporation—they were the distributors for Puma shoes here in the United States—and told them I lost my job, I need a job. And I’m New York City champ, won everything working for them for two years. They didn’t even know I was a New York City champ. And then I had to explain to them, at that time, if this was my company, you wouldn’t have to ask me who won what or who the champ is. If I’m dealing in this particular product in athletics, I’m supposed to know athletics. So, I kept that in mind about who the Puma people were, and I felt that they needed to be a part of this history, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: The response after you got off the medal stand—now, you had one glove—pair of gloves—


AMY GOODMAN: —that you divided, so one has—you have a black—


AMY GOODMAN: You have—the Black Power salute is one right hand and one left hand.

JOHN CARLOS: Well, the gloves was Tommie Smith’s gloves. Tommie brought the gloves out because, primarily, he did not want to shake hands with Avery Brundage. The word was that Avery Brundage wouldn’t give us our medals. We were—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Avery Brundage was.

JOHN CARLOS: Well, Avery Brundage, at that time, was the International Olympic president. I think Avery Brundage was a very biased and prejudiced individual. I think, quite frankly, he was a bigot. But he was in charge of the International Olympic Committee. He’s the same individual that stripped Jim Thorpe of his glorious days as an Olympian, as, in my estimation, probably the greatest athlete of all time, merely because he played a softball game or baseball game in North Carolina and got two dollars. He stripped him of all his Olympic awards. He invited Hitler to host the Olympic Games when Hitler was in his biggest reign. He took some Jewish individuals off the team, circumvented that to the United States, telling them, “We want these Jews removed from the team,” because we were in Nazi Germany at that particular time. So he wasn’t a pleasant guy to be heading up an organization such as the International Olympic Committee. So, Tommie did not want to touch the guy’s hand, so he brought the gloves.

Fortunately, Mr. Brundage got wind that something was going down, and he didn’t want to be involved. So I told Tommie to bring the gloves. And then, collectively, in the tunnel, we got together and decided what we were going to do with the gloves. You know, and many stories went out: John Carlos left his gloves home, John Carlos left them in the dorm. There was never any gloves for me to leave. I didn’t have any gloves. Mr. Smith had the gloves.

AMY GOODMAN: So this was a spontaneous action to put on these gloves, one right hand, one left hand.

JOHN CARLOS: Absolutely. When we brought the artifacts, we decided that we would bring these artifacts together after the quarter semi. When we determined that this is something that we wanted to do, and we wanted to know what artifacts we had, then we started talking about what we had. And after the race, we had all the artifacts together. And then, when we was in the tunnel just before we went out, we distributed what we was going to do and how we was going to do.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Dave Zirin, can you talk a little bit about the significance of Avery Brundage?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, most certainly. I mean, Avery Brundage stands astride the 20th century Olympic movement like a colossus. He was an Olympian himself. He won silvers. You know, who beat him for the golds all those times was Jim Thorpe, interestingly, whose medals he later stripped. Exactly. This is who Avery Brundage was.

There was a very good chance that Hitler was never going to get the Olympics in 1936. There was a rebellion against that happening in the American amateur union in this country. Avery Brundage flew to Germany, met with Hitler, came back and said, “You know what? I spoke to” — it wasn’t true. He said, “I spoke to many Jews in Nazi Germany, and they think Hitler is great. Jews are treated beautifully here.” So he sold the idea that Hitler was an appropriate place for the Olympic—Hitler’s Germany was an appropriate place. And he’s still there in '68. He's still there in '72. He's still there in '76, and that's when he passes away. I mean, it’s one of those things. It’s like Dick Cheney syndrome, like evil preserves.

AMY GOODMAN: He didn’t oppose the Nazi salute? Brundage?

DAVE ZIRIN: Brundage? About them going to Nazi Germany?


DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, no, no. He made that happen. He actually facilitated the process that gave the prestige of the Olympics to Hitler’s Nazi Germany and then helped—

AMY GOODMAN: And he didn’t oppose the use of the Nazi salute in the Olympics.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, not at all, not at all. This is who Avery Brundage was. And it made perfect sense at the time that he would be part of the demands of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, also because he was threatening everybody involved in the Olympic Project for Human Rights in the years leading up to the Olympic Games, dire, dark warnings about what would happen to them if they dared step out of line once they got to Mexico City.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were threatened, John Carlos?

JOHN CARLOS: Oh, I was threatened before, during and after. You know, I think I was threatened the day I was born. But yet and still, you can’t stop your life and stop trying to make it a better life for all people for merely having threats put upon your life. I mean, you know, we see back—we go all the way back to Jesus Christ. He was threatened. It didn’t hold him up. And those individuals that sacrificed their lives over the years, it didn’t hold them up, as well. They received just as many threats as John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Or Peter Norman, for that matter.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Brundage said you were stripped of your medal to news reporters afterwards?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, they came to us and stated to us in the Hotel Diplomatico, where all the officials stayed, and unfortunately, we were staying there with our wives, as well. So we come downstairs in the elevator, and I’m here listening to them on the radio speaker, a little Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but my mom does, so I know a little Spanish when I hear it. And they stated they were going to take our Olympic medals, and they were going to run us out the country. And when we got down to the lobby, it was like a flood of reporters there, and photographers. And they swarmed around us right away and started pointing questions: “We understand that they’re going to take your Olympic medals, and they’re going to run you out of the country.”

I said, “Well, let me step up and tell you right now.” I said, “I don’t know about Mr. Smith,” I said, “but I’ll tell you about John Carlos. The medal doesn’t really have any significant value to me,” I said. “But it might mean everything to my kids. I earned this medal. You didn’t give me the medal. You didn’t knock on my door and say, ’We’re going to put you on the team.’ You set a standard. I met the standard. I made it to the finals. I won this medal. So if you’re coming to get John Carlos’s medal, bring the militia, because you’re going to need it to get this medal.” So then they wiped that away.

But for 43 years—this Sunday will be 43 years. And they falsified and propagandized the fact that “We have taken John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s medals away,” because they train individuals to follow this carrot, to chase this carrot. This is the ideal of life, to go to the Olympics and chase this carrot. So if you step out of the circle, therefore we’re going to penalize you, and we’re going to take your medal away. So, they held everybody in check with that for many, many years.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you think that, 43 years later, now, do you think that the response, at least in the U.S., would be different to a similar gesture?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, I think a lot of people are a lot more wiser now than they were back in 1968. I don’t think as many people are as intimidated as they were back then, as resulted these young individuals that you see down at Wall Street right now. Many young individuals are stating that they—enough is enough, same as we stated 43 years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of Occupy Wall Street, let’s go down there, where you were and we were on Monday night. You addressed the General Assembly. You then held a teach-in at Occupy Wall Street. Let’s go to a clip, Dave Zirin and John Carlos.

DAVE ZIRIN: It was a revolutionary year. You had students in France, you had workers in Mexico City, you had the Black Panther Party, you had women, you had LGBT people, fighting for their rights. You also had the assassination of Dr. King. And if there was one moment, and if there was one moment, that symbolized that year, it was when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics.

JOHN CARLOS: My name is John Carlos. Track and field used to be my game. As you can see, I have on my shirt, I have the United States flag, I have the flag of the Olympic movement, and also I have down here Mexico City. And if you was to look at Mexico City and think about the Olympics and the United States flag, I could not do any more than think about all the young students that lost their lives because they had a forum such as we have here today for justice and equality for all people.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Carlos and Dave Zirin at Occupy Wall Street. If you were wondering, police have barred protesters from using amplified sound at the encampment, so the crowd always uses the human microphone technique, which repeats your remarks in unison. The significance of people’s protest today with what you were doing then? And going back, how was your career affected afterwards?

JOHN CARLOS: Well, there was pain. You know, I mean, you have sunshine going into the games. When you make a statement like that, you expect storms to come. We had many storms come to us. You know, we didn’t have employment after that. Any monies that you had in the bank, the money was going out, and nothing was coming in. Those individuals that you thought may have been your friends, a lot of them stepped away from you. It took some time for you to understand and figure out why would they step away. Most of us stepped away for fear of reprisal. Your kids are ridiculed in the school once they find out who their dad was. My first wife got so much on her shoulders, to the point where she couldn’t take it anymore and she took her life. It was many hurts that went on. But yet and still, I always said that if it had to happen, it would have to happen a thousand times more. I would lose my life or my wife would lose her life or my kids would have to endure, because what we did in Mexico City was necessary, and it was right.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Carlos, 1968, the Black Power salute, ever famous. Dave Zirin, as you write about this and wrote with John Carlos his story, what you learned?

DAVE ZIRIN: What didn’t I learn in talking to John? I mean, this is the thing about when you investigate a history and you peel back the onion, so to speak: you begin to actually learn something. And like when you peel back an onion, sometimes it gets a little dusty, and the tears come, too. And I found out that there was so much that I thought I knew, that I didn’t know, like I started talking with John, thinking, for example, that his medals were taken away, because that was the mythology that I had been told for all those many years. And so, to be able to actually get at the truth of the story is something I’ll never forget.

But I’ve got to say, like writing his story also made me very much appreciate shows like Democracy Now! And I’m not just saying that because I’m on the show; I’ll say that on other shows, too. And it’s because when John made his statement, the media was so top down and so narrow that just a couple of opinion makers got to shape national opinion as to about John Carlos and Tommie Smith. They stood for righteous things. They stood for getting Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia disinvited from the games, Muhammad Ali getting his title back, more African-American coaches. But their story wasn’t allowed to be told. Instead, they were called by “great” sportswriters—and I put “great” in quotes—like Brent Musburger, they were called “black-skinned stormtroopers.” The Los Angeles Times said they engaged in a “Nazi-like salute.” Think about the irony of that statement, given Avery Brundage and his history. And so, you didn’t have the kind of media outlets that allowed for them to just come on and tell their own story. And that’s why it’s so critical that we support media that doesn’t allow that kind of top-down nonsense.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for our show. Part two on our website, Dave Zirin and John Carlos. The book is called The John Carlos Story.

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Part 2: John Carlos, 1968 U.S. Olympic Medalist, On the Response to His Iconic Black Power Salute

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