Troy Davis, John Carlos, and the Moment that Still Matters

On September 21st, the day that Troy Davis was executed in Georgia, 200 very angry Howard University students pumped their fists in front of the Barack Obama’s White House and chanted “No Justice, No Vote.” At that moment, I understood why an image from 1968 still resonates today. It was 43 years ago this week when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the Olympic Medal Stand and, along with supportive silver-medalist Peter Norman, created a moment seared for all-time in the American consciousness.

This week also marks the release of John Carlos’s autobiography, The John Carlos Story, which I co-wrote. When John asked me to write the book, I felt compelled to do it because I’ve long wondered “why?”  Not why did Smith and Carlos sacrifice fame, fortune and glory in one medal-stand moment, but why that moment has stood the test of time.

Of course, much of the book details why John Carlos took his stand. It was 1968. Dr. King had been assassinated. The Black Freedom Struggle had become a fixture of American life. In the world of Olympic sports, apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia were regulars at the games. There were scant black coaches. Avery Brundage, an avowed white supremacist, ran the International Olympic Committee.

John Carlos in particular, in the 1960s, went from being a Harlem high school track star - walking down the street talking both smack and politics with neighborhood regulars like Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell - to being a scholarship athlete at segregated East Texas State. The gap between his sense of himself as a man and going to the South and being treated like a boy drove him politically toward his medal stand moment.

The answer to “why do so many of us still care” was tougher to decipher. In 2010, I appeared on a panel on the history of sports and resistance with Carlos, after which a long line of young people born years — even decades — after 1968 patiently waited for his signature on everything from posters and T-shirts to hastily procured pieces of notebook paper. Why?  And why have I seen street-corner merchants from Harlem to Johannesburg sell T-shirts emblazoned with that image?

The most obvious is that people love a good redemption song. Smith and Carlos have been proven correct by history. They were reviled for taking a stand and using the Olympic podium to do it. A young sportswriter named Brent Musberger called them “Black-skinned storm troopers.” But their “radical” demands have since proved to be prescient. Today, the idea of standing up to apartheid South Africa, racism, and Avery Brundage seems a matter of common decency rather than radical rabble-rousing. After years of death threats, poverty, and being treated as pariahs in the world of athletics, Smith and Carlos attend ceremonial unveilings of statues erected in their honor. America, like no other country on earth, loves remarking on its own progress.

But it was the Howard students, chanting “No Justice, No Vote” to an African American President on the night of a Georgia execution, who truly unveiled for me why the image of black-gloved fists thrust in the air has retained its power. Smith and Carlos sacrificed privilege and glory, fame and fortune, for a larger cause. As Carlos says, “A lot of the [black] athletes thought that winning [Olympic] medals would protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?”

Carlos’ attitude resonates because for all the blather about us living in a  “post-racial society”, there are reservoirs of anger about the realities of racism in the United States. The latest poverty statistics show that black poverty rate of 27.4% is nearly double the overall U.S. rate. Black children living in poverty has reached 39.1 percent. Then there’s the criminal justice system, where 33% of African American men are either in jail or on parole. The image of Carlos and Smith evokes a degree of principle, fearlessness, and freedom that I believe many people think are sorely lacking today. They stood at the Olympics unencumbered by doubt, as brazenly Free Men. We are still grappling with the fact that they had to do it and the fact that it still needs to be done.

[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing Contact him at]

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You say those statistics are proof of racism. I say they are proof of laziness.

It is unarguable that the Hispanics found this weakness & have exploited it so well that you yourself routinely say that the US couldn't function without them.

I beg to differ....

You would almost have a point 'Jowl', only you're leaving out the fundamental difference between African people's who live in the US and every other group of color who resides here. African's were slaves for 400 years in the US!! That is a long time for a people to get whipped, tarred, hung, burned, castrated and any other horrific and torturos act to experience bodily harm. However, as we all know, physical attacks on the human body heal. It is the mental, emotional, cultural and most importantly spritual wounds that have yet to be healed which can only be done by a reaffirmation of who we are and where we come from! African people gave us everything we know about the world, yet it treats us like second class citizens who stood on the side line and watched the other groups of humanity that occupied the world (which are also mutated Africans... EVOLUTION PEOPLE) come up with writing, architecture, mathematics etc... My point is, none of the other groups that occupy the US were forced to forget their names, their language, their customs, their GOD! For 400 YEARS! That is persisly the reason why African Americans continue to struggle, which is a far cry from the 'laziness' you were so quick to throw out there... Aside from plain old fashioned racism of course!


Anyone who can get 100 million people to work for free over the course of 400 years should most definitely not be lacking self confidence in regards to their 'achievements' and 'contributions' to that place. The reason white folks have it the way they do is off the backs of millions of murdered Africans and Native Americans. Little to known of the status of Europeans, ESP in the states, has come from anything else!


So, one-third of all black men are lazy? No, no! 27.4% of all black people are lazy? And the 39.1 % of black children are lazy or will grow up to be lazy. When do they start being lazy? Are the Hispanics living in poverty "unlazy"? What is their unemployment rate? How about the 17 million whites who live in poverty? Are they "lazy?" I think you are very lazy in the way you think. Why bother with looking at the reality of unemployment and poverty when you can just sit back and call unfortunate people - victims, really, of an economic system - "lazy"? If you were out of work or broke, would you suddenly become "lazy"?


Racism exist in every aspect of society. We cannot look at the individual success of a few athletes, entertainers, educators, and politicians and determine that things are better. We have to control our own destiny and speak the correct language. I am under no illusion that thing will get better for us as a people. Dave, you are on point.

Awesome Book

I had the opportunity to get an early copy of the book and loved it. I have never mowed through a book that fast in my life. Dr. Carlos grew up just a block away from where I did in Harlem and hearing him reminisce about the "glory days" (which were way before my time) was wonderful. His story is one that should resonate with everyone who believes in struggle and resistance to the oppressive powers that be. Many people know the about the moment in 1968, but far fewer understand the movement that was behind it, and that is really what we must understand, not just from a historical perspective, but just as importantly as a tool to assist us in the struggles that lay ahead. I am really looking forward to seeing Dave Zirin, Jeremy Scahil and others tomorrow night in Brooklyn and hope to see as many people as possible as we celebrate Haymarket Book's 10th Anniversary.

Carlos was at Occupy Wall St.

John Carlos Sees Parallels in 68 & Wall Street Protests

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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