The look was for the fire. Maybe now it would be just a spark inside John Carlos, a flicker, a remnant of the passion that so shocked the Olympics and the world 45 years ago. Time can be the great magician, reducing what once was so damn important to a mere trickle of whatever and a shrug of whaddya gonna do. The man who raised a black-gloved clenched fist in silent protest in Mexico City, would that same man, now 68 with a white beard and balky right knee, still glow white-hot on racial injustice?
After all, 45 years is a long time to carry a torch.
"We are no better off today than we were in the '60s," said Carlos, who spoke last Saturday at SRJC on the topic. "Cosmetically we have made the picture look better. We still have institutional racism in this country. Look at how our black president is being disrespected. People go out of their way to stop him, ridicule him, no matter what he is proposing.
"So what do you think it's like for the average black person who doesn't have that kind of power?"
It was mentioned to Carlos that such an opinion on racism and the presidency might not be universally appreciated. It could irritate, annoy and give rise to this criticism: Hey, pal, you're a jock and you're talking politics! Again! Carlos did that in 1968 at the Summer Games. Carlos stood on the medal podium after finishing third in the 200. Carlos raised a gloved fist along with gold medalist Tommie Smith. They were expelled from the Olympic Village. The vitriol was thick. They received death threats. The cover of Time magazine spelled out the prevailing sentiment. The five Olympic rings were shown with these three words; "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier" instead of the accepted Olympic mantra of Faster, Higher, Stronger.
"If people get angry, who are they angry at?" Carlos said. "Are they angry at me or are they angry at themselves?"
It was clear that even though Carlos has left the '60s and its time of protest, the '60s has never left him. A guidance counselor at Palm Springs High School in Southern California, Carlos never hedged on an opinion or watered down a strong thought. For example, on the movie "42," the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier, Carlos began by saying he liked the movie.
"But sometimes it seemed like the Branch Rickey story," said Carlos, referring to the then-Dodgers general manager who chose Robinson as the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. "They just didn't go far enough with Jackie. They never showed what a humanitarian Jackie was."
Racial discrimination, social injustice and minority bias have been threads woven through his life. Fact is, very few people can claim to have Carlos' background. If there is a voice that speaks with experience, Carlos owns the patent. He grew up in Harlem. His dad, Earl, was a shoemaker and played poker with Jackie Robinson. Carlos as a kid ran down Lennox Avenue after Malcolm X, asking the black activist if he could walk with him and "learn." He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and saw King 10 days before he was assassinated in 1968.