Yesterday afternoon at the City of Bellevue’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Tribute, Olympic athlete and activist John Carlos gave a keynote speech detailing his early years in 1940s and 50s Harlem, his drive to positively represent the black community, and his relationship with Dr. King.
“I might say that I was born into this job (as a civil activist),” said Carlos in front of an audience of local community members, which included 12-year-old poet Portia Isabella Polo, who opened for him with a reading of one of her pieces. “When I came into this world, I came in feet first. That was an indication that I’d be using these feet for something.”
And use them he did. Carlos is a famous track and field athlete who won the bronze medal in the 200-meter sprint at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. His original advocacy to boycott those very Olympic games for the sake of meeting four social justice-related conditions — and his Black Power salute with gold-medal winner Tommie Smith while the two stood on the podium — made him a symbol of the civil rights era.
Before that controversial career-launcher, Carlos was bent on being an athlete: He started out swimming, he said in his keynote, but was told by his father that the color of his skin would prevent him from doing the sport. Every time he went to the pool, which was in the white part of town, parents cleared their kids out of the water.
Resolute, Carlos took up boxing, but his mother wouldn’t allow it when she found out, he said.
“Then, one day, I turned on the TV and saw Robin Hood,” said Carlos. “He was concerned about the little guy, and he became my hero immediately.”
In line with Robin Hood’s “steal from the rich, give to the poor” mentality, Carlos and his friends started robbing the freight yard in Harlem and distributing the stolen goods to disenfranchised families who had been hit hard by a racist job market and an infiltration of drugs like heroin into the neighborhood. A couple of police officers — the only black ones in Harlem, he said — knew what he was doing and warned Carlos to stop.
Then, one of the officers told Carlos that he had seen him in the freight yard and noticed that he was a very talented runner.
“That’s how my track career got starter,” said Carlos.
Later, that track career — and the way he used it as a platform for human rights advocacy — put him in the room with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.
“When I asked him why he got involved in the Olympic boycott, this is what he said,” said Carlos. “‘Imagine you’re in an enormous lake, and you row to the center. You pick up a rock and sit there until everything is still. Then you take the rock and throw it overboard, and it creates waves — everything in the lake, and on the shore, knows that something is amiss. That’s the Olympic boycott: You have the world’s attention and you didn’t have to (hurt) anyone.'”
This encounter with Dr. King deeply impacted Carlos, who was honored to be fighting the same fight. In his speech yesterday afternoon, he encouraged everyone in the room to step up and be a part of that ongoing fight, as well.
“You don’t have to go to the Olympic games to stand up for what is right,” Carlos said. “You can do it right here in Bellevue, in the capacity of what you do. It’s all of our responsibilities.”
“Everyone is making history,” he added. “It’s up to you to determine which side of history you’re going to be on.”