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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.

As a kid, Carlos would break into freight trains that stopped near Yankee Stadium. He would steal food and clothing and give it to poor people in his neighborhood. Carlos felt a sense of right and wrong from as early as he could remember and he never thought that violence would solve anything.

"I never threw rocks or fired a gun or threw a punch in protest," said Carlos, who at one time or another held seven world records and eight American records. "I want people to come together and talk. If you don't agree with me, let's talk about it. If I don't agree with you, let's talk about it."

The world in 1968 did not interpret such pacifistic intentions when Carlos raised his clenched fist. Nor did Carlos anticipate many people would. That's why, when he stood there, arm extended, there was a slight bend at the elbow. Carlos was fearful someone would charge the podium and attack, and he wanted to be ready to deliver a punch.

Like all of us Carlos is a sum of his experiences. Truth to tell, how could anyone walk away and be unaffected if we experienced what Carlos experienced in 1966? Carlos was running for East Texas State (now Texas A&M Commerce) when he was told by his white coach, Delmar Brown, why he was such a good sprinter.

"He said black people had more bones in their bodies than white people, that was the reason," Carlos said. "I said let's both take X-rays of our skeletons. If a doctor can show I have more bones than you, you can have all the money in my bank account. We never did take the X-rays."

Fact is, Carlos could never and will never see elite athletes as mere superstar physical specimens. By the very nature of their celebrity they will always be viewed as much more than a possessor of superior hand-eye coordination.

"Charles Barkley said he's not a role model and people shouldn't see him that way," said Carlos, who was elected to the Track Hall of Fame in 2003. "Charles is wrong. That's not his decision to make. That decision comes from the receiver, not the giver."

The spotlight shines where it wants to shine and it's up to the athlete as to how he handles the attention. In Michael Jordan's case, he will never be Muhammad Ali.

"There will be another basketball player to come along and play like Michael," Carlos said. "Jordan will be forgotten in time. Muhammad sacrificed the best years of his career for a principle, not to fight in Vietnam. Because of that Muhammad will never be forgotten."

Perspective, that's what Carlos offers. A balance. A view that extends. Includes, not excludes. Injustice comes in various shapes and sizes. Like gay athletes coming out. Yes, Carlos sees a link because of discrimination but the connection doesn't go much deeper for him.

"If a gay man wants to stay in the closet, all he has to do is keep silent and no one will know," Carlos said. "But how do I do that?"

Carlos touched his skin as he said that. He lives with the spotlight every day. The color of his skin doesn't give him time off for good behavior. How he has chosen to live with that, Carlos does not skirt the issue his skin color unfortunately encourages.

"Oct. 16th, 1968, that's the day John Carlos was emancipated," he said. "I was born for that day."