John Carlos oral history interview: 2013.

Author:Cline, David P.


John Carlos discusses his childhood in Harlem, New York, the changes that he saw in Harlem with the widespread use of heroin and the splintering of families, and describes the disparities in education for black children when he was growing up. He remembers the influence of black leaders including Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Carlos was recruited to run track at East Texas State University, where he experienced racial discrimination and was treated poorly by his coach. He explains his protest at the 1968 Olympics, including the symbols that he and Tommy Smith employed to protest racial discrimination, and he describes the emotional impact that the protest had on him. John Carlos was a member of the American Olympic track team and was the Bronze Medalist at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, where he protested racism around the world. He later played football in the NFL, and worked as a counselor and track and field coach (9 video files of 9, 127 min., digital, sound, color, 1 transcript of 68 pages). This interview is part of the Civil Rights History Project Interview completed by the Southern Oral History Program under contract to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History & Culture and the Library of Congress, 2013 with interviewer David Cline and videographer John Bishop.

[Conversation and laughter]

John Carlos: Hopefully, they'll sit down.

David Cline: Ready?

John Bishop: We're ready for the intro.

David Cline: Okay. Good morning. Today is August 18th, 2013. We are in Brooklyn, New York, with Dr. John Carlos, very honored to be here talking to you today. My name is David Cline. I am from the Department of History at Virginia Tech University and conducting this interview for the Civil Rights History Project of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Library of Congress. Filming this interview is Mr. John Bishop of Media Generation. We also have Elaine Nichols here from the museum, and our friend is also joining us today. I think that's everything. I want to thank you very much, Dr. Carlos, for being part of this project.

John Carlos: It's my honor. I mean, this is a very prestigious interview, and I'm just honored to be a part of it.

David Cline: Well, we're very grateful and honored that you've agreed to join us.

John Carlos: Thank you.

DC: Alright. What I'd like to do is just start, if you could just tell us a little bit about your childhood, where you grew up, and really who your people are, and what sort of influences you may have seen from that background in your later life.

JC: Alright. Well, let me just start off by my mom and dad. My dad was born, I would say, probably about 60 years after slavery in Camden, South Carolina. My mom was born in Cuba, migrated to the United States when she was 17, met my dad in New York City. They got married. They had three kids: Earl Junior, Andrew Carlos--well, actually four kids; I'm sorry, I left my baby sister out--John Carlos, and then Carlos. We were born and raised on Lenox Avenue, New York. Fortunately for me, I had the great distinction to be raised between the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom, probably the two most prestigious nightclubs in the world at that particular time. I had an opportunity to grow up there, to learn about how to hustle in front of the Savoy Ballroom, to do a little song and dance to entertain the people and receive those silver dollars-- that was the coin of the time for particularly youngsters--to have a guy named Fred Astaire come to me, because I was the type of kid I didn't have the talent to dance and to sing, but I had the talent to go collect the money. And what he told me at that particular time was he enjoyed us. What impressed him most is that we always gave a good show for the money. That was something that stayed with me throughout my career as a public figure in the world of sports, to make sure that I gave the people a very good show for the money. I began to develop in Harlem and, wide-eyed, I would look and see what was going on. At that particular time, I noticed at a very young age that they had a thing called white flight. It appeared that all the white folks had a meeting that night and decided that, "We're going to just move out of Harlem," because they all started moving to the suburbs and left Harlem primarily for black people.

DC: What years were these? What year were you born?

JC: I was born June 5th 1945, so I would say roughly eight years, nine years into my life, these things started taking place. I recall asking my father why were they leaving? And my father pretty much told me that [clears throat] it was difficult for white folks to accept the fact that most of the domesticated workers that was there to clean the house or what-have-you were starting to move into the apartment buildings and live as next-door neighbors. So I guess a lot of them felt like, "Hey, we can't have this," and they decided to leave. In retrospect now, here in 2013, if you was to go back to Harlem, many of the ancestors of those white individuals that moved out have moved back into Harlem. And it doesn't just appear to be that way in Harlem. It's happening all over the United States. But in any case, I continued to grow in New York. I got a chance to experience what the drug scene was. When I was a kid, the drug of choice for many individuals was a thing called King Kong. King Kong was a bootleg liquor. It was almost--if I was to put that in parallel with something in modern times, I would say King Kong was like PCP.

A lot of these individuals would drink this bootleg liquor and they would go to the roof and actually take off, like they could fly, and jump to their death. And then overnight, King Kong left, and this thing called heroin came in, or smack, or mud, or whatever you care to call it. And that's when I noticed that families started to disintegrate.

When I say disintegrate, I mean explode, in terms of all of the love and affection and the harmony that they had in the household just dissolved. Because at that particular time there used to be a unit, a family unit, to the point where all families got together between 5:30 and 6:00 to have dinner, to have discussion as to what happened in school, "Did you do your homework? How did you make out on your science project?" All of these things were taking place, and then when the drugs came in, it just disillusioned a lot of the fathers. Many of the fathers became, as I call them, "missing in action," because they stopped coming home. They were strung on those drugs and left the families to be raised by the mothers. Mothers try and do the best that they could, and a lot of them, at that particular time, had three and four or five kids. And then, for the mom to try and raise those kids by themselves, it put a lot of unnecessary pressure on them. Some of them started to chippy around with the drugs themselves. Some of them went to alcohol. But the bottom line was it was very difficult for them to survive. Economically, if you looked at it, at that particular time, for a black family in the United States, jointly if they made $15,000, they was the top of the line. So, when the father left, that cut the income considerably. So then, when you looked in their closet, there was no clothes. You looked in the icebox, there was no food. Anything they had was a hand-down from maybe a brother that was four or five years older than them. They just would hand the clothes down. I began to look around, in terms of what role could I play? What could I do?

DC: Now, did your family hang together?

JC: My mother and father was strong as the Rock of Gibraltar. My father was a shoemaker. My father was a veteran from the First World War. He had an entrepreneurial-type mind where he was his own man, and he set up his own business and did quite well. My mother came in as a domesticated worker as well. I remember when we were young kids, my mother would take myself and my brother when she used to go and clean the abortion offices all through Harlem, to go in and clean the afterbirth. And I remember I used to go snooping around, just to look and see what was going on. And I saw some things in there that maybe I shouldn't have saw at that particular age. But yet and still I went on to realize that--and I don't want to go into detail about it--but I would say with the drug trade at that particular time, there was the professional-type drugs that some of these professional doctors had in the office, where professional people used these drugs, like entertainers or doctors or lawyers or what-have-you. And then, there was the street drugs, as I mentioned earlier; the heroin was out, just open for the everyday people in the street. But I began to look around, as I said, to see what my niche was. What could I do to try and make things better for my peers, the standard of life that they had, to bring them up to at least the standard that we had in my household?

And I saw a guy on TV that I was very impressed with, a white fellow, used to run around in a green suit and had a funny-looking hat with a feather sticking out of it, and they called this guy Robin Hood. And I began to look at Robin Hood in terms of, "Wow, this is a guy that I want to image myself as, a guy that had no fear in terms of the authority figures." Because it appeared to me that Robin Hood split the pea in half, so to speak, and made it clear to himself there was two laws of the land: There was God's law and there was man's law. And he made it clear that he wasn't concerned about man's law.

He was concerned about God's law, and he did his job. And when I say man's law, I'm talking about like the Sheriff of Nottingham, you know, the way they presented Robin Hood. And I liked the way he carried himself. So, then I began to look at what was happening in the freight trains. Just like the stagecoach or the carriage would come...

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