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ABS Honors Black History: John Carlos, Tommie Smith And The ‘Black Power’ Salute

As we embark on Black History Month here at Atlanta Black Star, we are going to take a unique look throughout the month at the heroes of the African Diaspora by celebrating their courage and their prophetic brilliance. We kick off the month this week by exploring iconic figures who uplifted black people with the strength and audacity of their moral clarity. These are individuals who took a principled stand, regardless of threats to their personal comfort, welfare or safety.

When John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood on that medal stand and thrust their fists in the air in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City — just months after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sparked explosions of black rage in cities across America — they infused black people around the world with overwhelming pride.

In this excerpt from Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge (New American Library) by Etan Thomas with Nick Chiles, Carlos talks about his father imbuing him with the pride and strength to enable him to take that courageous moral stand for Black Power at the Olympics after he won the bronze medal in the 200 meters (Smith won the gold).

My father owned a candy shop right on Lenox Avenue that was also a shoe shine in the back. I saw my father work hard and take pride in his work and at the same time help his community every chance he got.

He taught me the importance of being a man, and what he called “the order of life.” He taught me the responsibility of having jobs, the necessity of actually leading your household. Not in a chauvinistic, domineering capacity, but in a providing-for capacity—clothes, food, and a roof over their heads. He would say, “If you don’t provide that for your family, how can you call yourself a man?”

He taught me about the responsibility of educating your children, teaching them life lessons. He put everything in perspective, as far as what role you had as a man. He would speak about being the captain of your ship, and how important it is to make decisions that will affect the entire family when it’s time to make those decisions.

My father would teach me lessons of life by using people from the past as examples. He told me so much about them that I felt as if I actually knew them. The courage that I had to take the public stance we took in 1968 at the Olympics was directly instilled in me by my father from the time I was a little kid running around on Lenox Avenue. He would use someone like Jackie Robinson. I would go to the YMCA on 135th Street and Lenox and watch videos of him when he first broke the color barrier in major league baseball. My father used these videos to show us the sacrifices that Jackie Robinson had to make and what he had to endure.

He made us have a clear understanding that Robinson wasn’t just concerned about Robinson, but rather about all the young people who would follow in his footsteps. He showed us how, when they put him on the field and they called him every racial slur that they have ever invented, he had to have tolerance and not retaliate. He taught me how it wasn’t a symbol of weakness but rather an example of strength to be able to have the self-discipline not to stoop to another man’s level because you see the big picture.

And when Jackie Robinson one day walked into my father’s shop to have his shoes shined, I felt connected to him, because I knew what he was about as a man, and that had a tremendous influence on me. I got the chance to meet a lot of the people whom my father would tell me about, because his shop was right at 626 Lenox Avenue, next to the Savoy Ballroom, and anyone who knows anything about Harlem in that time period knows that the Savoy Ballroom was the happenin’ spot.

He spoke to me a lot about Paul Robeson. He would talk about how dignified an individual he was. And about how proud he was as a black man. How he was not one to take the backseat on the bus. He explained to us how he was not only a world-class athlete, but he was highly educated and a Rhodes scholar. He was teaching me that his athletic gifts were only a small piece of who this person was as a whole.

1968 Olympics: John Carlos & Tommie Smith from Diana Sinelnikova Harper on Vimeo.

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