Book Review: "The John Carlos Story" Inspires All the Way to the Finish Line

August 28, 2011

Doctor John Carlos' autobiography, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, not only is a fascinating, no-nonsense look into one of track and field's most misunderstood figures, but also is an honest, revealing examination of 20th-century American society itself.

Carlos is one of the two men behind arguably the most famous image in sports history -- the 1968 Olympics protest gesture in which he and Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists on the medal stand.

What the book quickly conveys to the reader however, is that there is much more depth and background to the man than what is revealed in that image alone.

Merely labeling the gesture as a symbol of protest, and giving it a "postage stamp" feel in our mind's eye, would be doing a disservice to this highly principled man who took genuine risk for his famous act and suffered significant consequences as a result.

What makes Carlos' life so compelling is that in addition to his protest salute, he personally knew and interacted with some of history's most interesting figures, including Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Dr. Harry Edwards.

More than a view into one person's life, Carlos' book is a view into American society as a whole because his life reflects the times -- he is a person of color suffering injustice, who is then inspired to combat state-enforced discrimination with courage, principled resistance, and organized protest.

Carlos naturally begins his journey by taking the reader back to his childhood, where he grew up in a two-parent household in the hip and sophisticated cultural mecca of Harlem during its Renaissance. It was during these childhood years that Carlos first began to feel the impact of racism.

Young Carlos initially aspires to become an Olympic swimmer, but has his hopes dashed when he realizes that his neighborhood's poor facilities, coupled with his ethnic background, will prevent him from having access to the proper pools needed for training.

It is a powerful moment in Carlos' life -- he experiences Langston Hughes' A Dream Deferred firsthand as a mere boy -- but it nevertheless starts the development in his consciousness of the militant streak against injustice that will later guide his life.

That initial seed would later flourish with the arrival of Malcolm X in Harlem.

Unlike many athletes who might briefly cross paths with a political figure of importance, Carlos actually interacted with several on a semi-regular basis, including the iconic El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.   Carlos idolized Malcolm, and he followed him around from speech to speech as a youth, often asking him questions.

Malcolm's influence on Carlos gave him the confidence to later stage a successful school cafeteria boycott against the unsanitary food that was being served.

As for his athletic achievements, the book details Carlos' 1968 experience at the Games, as well as his pre-Olympics and post-Olympics career.  But even more interesting are the reasons behind his early reputation in Harlem for being a fast runner.

A modern-day Robin Hood, Carlos was often seen running from the police with 50 pounds of stolen groceries on his shoulders. After finishing those impromptu resistance-training sprints, he would later distribute those goods to the poor people in his neighborhood without any thoughts of compensation.

Without spoiling things for the reader, here are just a few of the book's many interesting highlights:

  • Boxer George Foreman, criticized by many in the civil rights movement for waving a U.S. flag following Carlos' protest, had a friendly relationship with Carlos himself.  In fact, Foreman gave Carlos money when Carlos had later financial problems.

  • Carlos became so lonely and despondent at one point, that in a desperate attempt for human companionship, he had a cup of coffee with an FBI agent while that agent was conducting surveillance on his home.

  • Carlos found the civil rights struggle to be a generational issue, rather than a purely black-white issue. He notes that many young whites supported social justice for blacks, in contrast to the older generation. This generational divide also included some blacks, as 1936 Olympics legend Jesse Owens repeatedly tried to discourage Carlos and Smith from engaging in any type of protest at the Games.

  • When Carlos was organizing the 1968 Olympics boycott, he became speechless during his first meeting with Martin Luther King. However, King began cracking jokes and had such a great sense of humor that he immediately put Carlos at ease.

  • The terrorists who massacred several Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, initially posed as athletes by disguising themselves in Puma track suits.  They received those suits at the Puma stand where Carlos was working inside the Athletes' Village. When Carlos attempted to question the unfamiliar men, Puma's promotional reps told him to just give the men the gear.

  • Carlos and Smith received so many death threats prior to the Games that on the medal stand they expected an attack. Both men hoped that their highly-trained reactions to a starter's pistol would allow them to duck quickly at the sound of any gunfire. Carlos kept his raised arm slightly bent in the event he needed to hit an onrushing attacker.

The John Carlos Story is a classic American tale about having the courage to fight for one's convictions.  The ignorant racists and conservatives who were so petrified of Carlos 43 years ago, would not have felt as threatened had they possessed the common sense to realize that Carlos' dissent was as patriotic as apple pie.

When one considers that the U.S. was founded on the ideal of revolting against tyranny, Carlos' act comported with that same rationale.  Ironically, the only traitors at the 1968 Games were those who opposed Carlos, and the free speech and social justice principles that he defended.

The John Carlos Story is highly recommended reading for sports fans, those intrigued with history, or anyone interested in the story of an uncompromising man and his determined struggle for justice. It is written in an easy-to-read conversational style that gives the reader the sense that Carlos is telling his story in his own living room.

The John Carlos Story is due to be released in October 2011 by Haymarket Books.  It is co-written by Dr. John Carlos and Dave Zirin.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for The Daily Sports Herald

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