John Carlos, along with Tommy Smith, made the famous Black Power salute/protest at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. John Carlos, third in the 200 meters final, gave the whole civil rights issue, an even greater international slant after this demonstration with Smith.


John Carlos was born in Harlem, New York in 1945. Carlos graduated from the Machine Trade and Medal High School and was awarded a full track and field scholarship to East Texas State University. He won the university’s first track Lone Star Conference Championship. From East Texas, Carlos went to San José State University.

Here he met Harry Edwards and they became friends. Edwards was a member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) which attempted to get an athletes boycott of the Mexico games. The boycott did not materialise but the stance of OPHR had made an impression on both John Carlos and Tommy Smith.

Carlos won the bronze medal in the 200 meters final. During the medal ceremony he raised his left arm in the air (with the hand in a black glove) in what was a Black Power salute. Along with Smith, who had done the same, Carlos was expelled from the games and had to return to America. However, both men had been seen across the world making this stand and it must have aroused curiosity amongst some as to why they had done this in what was seen as an apolitical event. The so-called “Silent Protest” was voted the sixth most memorable television event of the Twentieth Century.

When Carlos and Smith returned to the USA, they were greeted as heroes by some and as unpatriotic troublemakers by others. However, they had made civil rights in America an international topic. Carlos was with Martin Luther King just ten days before King was assassinated in 1968.

However, the athlete who had achieved international fame in Mexico found that it counted for nothing once the games were over. Carlos had to do a succession of menial jobs just to financially survive. He claims that money was so tight that on cold nights he had to chop up furniture and use it as fire wood to keep out the cold.

After leaving athletics, John Carlos had a short career in the NFL. After this he joined PUMA and also worked for the city of Los Angeles. He currently works as a track and field coach for Palm Springs High School in California.

“I don’t feel embraced. I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer. It’s like if you are sick and no-one wants to be around you, and when you’re well everyone who thought you would go down for good doesn’t even want to make eye contact. It was almost like we were on a desert island. That’s where Tommy Smith and John Carlos were. But we survived.”John Carlos

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