One of the two men who raised his black-gloved fist 46 summers ago in Mexico City returned a phone call the other day. John Carlos said he was waiting for the media to call weeks ago, when all the Donald Sterling news broke, and now he lamented no one had.
“I’d like to question ESPN, ‘Good Morning America,’ the ‘Today Show’ and all these talk shows in regard to this issue with the Clippers,” Carlos said from his home in Atlanta. “Man, if anybody should have been on those shows to discuss what has taken place, it should have been Tommie Smith or John Carlos or both of us.
“We have a direct issue, stemming from what we had to deal with 46 years ago, and not one of them picked the phone up.”
Of all the times Carlos and Smith have slipped from memory, now made absolutely no sense.
Beyond the 1960s and early ’70s there has never been a time of more elevated consciousness in American sports than at this very moment:
●NBA players lending their voice to ensure a bigot owner is removed from their league;
●The coming out of gay athletes — not just before they retire from their professional careers but before they are even drafted;
●Richard Sherman saying Roger Goodell wouldn’t act against an owner like Donald Sterling as punitively as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver because the NFL commissioner still supports the nickname of the team in Washington.
In this brave, new world, more than 2,000 NFL players were sent a letter by Native Americans and civil rights groups last week. From the NAACP and ACLU to 60 tribes and advocacy groups, 77 combined institutions humbly asked others to follow Sherman’s lead in speaking out against a league and team continuing to misappropriate and co-opt a people’s culture for profit.
“Richard Sherman made a very valid point,” Carlos said. “You do have to look at what he said. For tribes or reservations to say they’re uncomfortable with you using that name, and then have players say they are just as uncomfortable, and the owner stands there, saying he’ll never change the name? How do you get away with that?
“To this day, there has been no real negotiation or real listening and understanding that I know of.”
Carlos and Smith were on an island five decades ago. They could have returned home as popular U.S. Olympic medalists in 1968 before they gave up everything during a podium protest that remains an iconic image of the civil rights movement.
Who would go that far today? Who would risk it all for something they believed in?
If he were playing still, Tre Johnson said he would. The former Pro Bowl offensive lineman, who played for Washington from 1994 to 2000, now coaches and teaches at Landon School in Bethesda. He reached out this week to make his feelings known, days after another former player, Mark Schlereth, came out against the name.
“I definitely think the name should be changed; it’s 2014,” Johnson said. “We’re progressive and intellectual enough to realize something like that is offensive. And it’s offensive because a group of people that that moniker represents has said so.”
I asked Johnson, if his job was at stake, would he support the name.
“I could not have allowed myself to be a conduit for something I didn’t believe in,” he said. “Now, if they really believe the name is not offensive, okay. But I would hope there isn’t anyone who is supporting this particular moniker and the dissemination of positive propaganda concerning it who doesn’t believe it and is being compelled to do so as a caveat of their employment. Because if, you know what I’m saying . . . that’s a coward. Plain and simple, that’s a coward.”
Carlos was just as transparent: “You know what I say to the these young individuals weaned on the dollar? You weren’t guaranteed $50,000 in your lifetime. Now you got $50 million, and you’re no more of a man than you were before. How much money do you have to have to stand up for the injustices in society? That’s the question that should go to every one of them and all of them.”
When I told Carlos what a friend told me — “It’s one thing for black NBA players to get rid of Sterling, but black D.C. is never going to stand up for Native Americans” — he about lost it. As elephants in the room go, really, why would a non-Native American work force really take up for a people who don’t look like them or an increasingly marginalized race with whom many have had no contact?
“I don’t understand how individuals would be more concerned about the black race than worried about the human race,” Carlos said. “Given what I know of what happened to their people and what happened to mine, it would be extremely difficult for me to say I have concern for my race and not for their race.”
He brought up Peter Norman, the third man on the podium in Mexico City, a white Australian whom Smith and Carlos told of their demonstration plans before the medal ceremony, and who wore a Human Rights badge to show his support, a fact that ostracized him for years in his own country.
“Peter Norman was as transparent as I was that day,” he said. “It wasn’t about no race, religion or color that day, man. It was about right vs. wrong. This is what you do as a human being. You don’t jump into your color machine.”
I often get, “Stick to sports” — as in, just opine about the games and the issues surrounding competition. And it usually it comes from people who forget that Jackie Robinson integrating baseball happened before Brown vs. Board of Education or any civil rights act being signed, that sports has been at the forefront of creating racial and social justice in this country.
When you understand the conviction of Carlos, Arthur Ashe, Martina Navratilova, Muhammad Ali and others, it should be obvious that this is exactly where we should be having this discussion, that the most delicate social issues of our time often become most relatable and accessible through this very venue.
“Bottom line is, black kids, brown kids, red kids, yellow kids, white kids — all kids are looking at this thing and what the end result is going to be,” Carlos said. “People miss that point. Younger kids are coming through. They’re watching this, and it’s going to inform them going forward.”
It’s going to inform them who risked friends, fame and fortune for something they believed in and who stood on the opposite side of John Carlos’s legacy.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.