““The first thing I thought was the shackles have been broken,” Carlos says, casting his mind back to how he felt in that moment. “And they won’t ever be able to put shackles on John Carlos again. Because what had been done couldn’t be taken back. Materially, some of us in the incarceration system are still literally in shackles. The greatest problem is we are afraid to offend our oppressors.
“I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had. God told the angels that day, ‘Take a step back – I’m gonna have to do this myself.’”
The image certainly captures that sense of momentary rebellion. But what it cannot do is evoke the human sense of emotional turmoil and individual resolve that made it possible, or the collective, global gasp in response to its audacity. In his book, The John Carlos Story, in the seconds between mounting the podium and the anthem playing, Carlos writes that his mind raced from the personal to the political and back again. Among other things, he reflected on his father’s pained explanation for why he couldn’t become an Olympic swimmer, the segregation and consequent impoverishment of Harlem, the exhortations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to “be true to yourself even when it hurts”, and his family. The final thought before the band started playing was, “Damn, when this thing is done, it can’t be taken back.
“I know that sounds like a lot of thoughts for just a few moments standing on a podium,” he writes. “But honestly this was all zigzagging through my brain like lightning bolts.”
Anticipating some kind of protest was afoot, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had sent Jesse Owens to talk them out of it. (Owens’s four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin themselves held great symbolic significance, given Hitler’s belief in Aryan supremacy.) Carlos’s mind was made up. When he and Smith struck their pose, Carlos feared the worst. Look at the picture and you’ll see that while Smith’s arm is raised long and erect, Carlos has his slightly bent at the elbow. “I wanted to make sure, in case someone rushed us, I could throw down a hammer punch,” he writes. “We had just received so many threats leading up to that point, I refused to be defenceless at that moment of truth.”
It was also a moment of silence. “You could have heard a frog piss on cotton. There’s something awful about hearing 50,000 people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane.”
And then came the storm. First boos. Then insults and worse. People throwing things and screaming racist abuse. “Niggers need to go back to Africa!” and, “I can’t believe this is how you niggers treat us after we let you run in our games.”
“The fire was all around me,” Carlos recalls. The IOC president ordered Smith and Carlos to be suspended from the US team and the Olympic village. Time magazine showed the Olympic logo with the words Angrier, Nastier, Uglier, instead of Faster, Higher, Stronger. The LA Times accused them of engaging in a “Nazi-like salute”.
Beyond the establishment, the resonance of the image could not be overstated. It was 1968; the black power movement had provided a post-civil rights rallying cry and the anti-Vietnam protests were gaining pace. That year, students throughout Europe, east and west, had been in revolt against war, tyranny and capitalism.
Martin Luther King had been assassinated and the US had been plunged into yet another year of race riots in its urban centres. Just a few months earlier, the Democratic party convention had been disrupted by a huge police riot against Vietnam protesters. A few weeks before the Games, scores of students and activists had been gunned down by authorities in Mexico City itself.
The sight of two black athletes in open rebellion on the international stage sent a message to both America and the world. At home, this brazen disdain for the tropes of American patriotism – flag and anthem – shifted dissidence from the periphery of American life to primetime television in a single gesture, while revealing what DuBois once termed the “essential two-ness” of the black American condition. “An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
As Carlos explains in his book, their gesture was supposed, among other things, to say: “Hey, world, the United States is not like you might think it is for blacks and other people of colour. Just because we have USA on our chest does not mean everything is peachy keen and we are living large.”
Eight years earlier, during a different phase of anti-racist activism in the US, a 17-year-old student, Franklin McCain, had gained his place in the history books when he sat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, with three friends and refused to move until they were served. Many years later, McCain was philosophical about how that experience had affected him. “On the day that I sat at that counter, I had the most tremendous feeling of elation and celebration,” he told me. “Nothing has ever come close. Not the birth of my first son, nor my marriage. And it was a cruel hoax, because people go through their whole lives and they don’t get that to happen to them. And here it was being visited upon me as a 17-year-old. It was wonderful, and it was sad also, because I know that I will never have that again. I’m just sorry it was when I was 17.”
Carlos has no such regrets. He’s just glad he could be where he was to do what he felt he had to do. “I don’t have any misgivings about it being frozen in time. It’s a beacon for a lot of people around the world. So many people find inspiration in that portrait. That’s what I was born for.”