John Carlos (1945– )

Tommie Smith and John Carlos,
Mexico City, 1968
Image Ownership: Public Domain

John Carlos is best known for his black-gloved fist salute on the winner’s podium (with Tommie Smith) at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Carlos was born and raised in Harlem, New York.  He was a promising student-athlete in high school who, following graduation, attended East Texas State University (ETSU) on a track and field scholarship. After a year at ETSU, Carlos transferred to San Jose State University (SJS).

Carlos attended SJS during the late 1960s at the time of the “revolt of the Black athlete” which was symbolized by the University canceling its opening day football with University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) on September 18, 1967 due to a boycott of black student athletes.  At the time, Carlos was a world-class sprinter and student-member of the SJS United Black Students for Action (UBSA).

As a track and field athlete Carlos was not directly affected by the student boycott of the football game.  He continued to successfully compete and was chosen for the American Olympic team that would participate in the Mexico City Games in 1968.

Carlos was aware of the Olympic Project for Human Rights organized by former SJS athlete Harry Edwards (OPHR) for the specific purpose of boycotting the 1968 Summer Olympic Games. Carlos, however, did not participate in the boycott.  Instead he won the bronze medal in the 200-meter dash.  He did register his own protest at the games, however when after gaining the bronze (with teammate Tommie Smith getting the gold medal), both men, from the winner’s podium, raised their fists in solidarity with boycotting student athletes.  After shocking the world with their defiant act, Carlos and Smith were suspended from the Olympic Village and given 48 hours to return to the United States.  Later they were banned from amateur athletics and were subjected to death threats. Their protest, however, created an easier path for black athletes to follow in amateur and professional sports. In 1969 the ban was lifted and Carlos had his best year in track and field in the 100, 200, and 4 x 110-yard relay, leading SJS to its first NCAA championship.

After graduating from SJS in 1970, Carlos briefly played professional football with the Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League, and the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League. In retirement, he worked for Puma (shoes) and ironically, the United States Olympic Committee.  He was also worked at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles as an organizer. Since 1985, Carlos has worked as a counselor and track and field coach at Palm Springs High School in California.