It’s perhaps the most iconic photograph in Olympics history: two men—Tommie Smith and John Carlos—on the medal stand, raising their fists in the name of justice. The photo was taken at the 1968 Summer Olympics, shortly after Smith and Carlos placed first and third, respectively, in the 100 meter dash. Nearly 50 years later, Carlos spoke to Fusion about the parallels between 1968, why he loves that Michael Phelps smoked pot and also carried the American flag at the Opening Ceremonies in Rio, and his thoughts on why sportscaster Brent Musburger should apologize to him.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Did you happen to watch LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony at the ESPYs?
I commend those individuals for setting a fresh, new paradigm for all individuals of note. When I say that, I'm talking about superstar athletes, high-powered entertainers, actors. I'm talking about business people. I'm talking about anyone of color who know the plight of their history, that realize, 'Hey man, you have to be a voice for the voiceless. You have to be concerned about those that you left behind in your communities.'
So, for what they're doing, man? I commend them for stepping up and turning up the volume to say, 'Hey man, not only is it time for us to raise our voices'—and I may add Michael Jordan to that, because I saw him come out and say, 'Enough is enough.'
I think the athletes and entertainers are saying the same thing—enough is enough. And we're not going to point fingers at the police, and say they're the problem. We can't point fingers at the gang members and say they're the problem. But there are problems that need to be resolved.
And the only way to resolve those problems is to roll up our sleeves and get busy and start to rebuild our communities and start to push for infrastructure in our communities, and give our kids some good things to think about in terms of how we can bring ourselves out of the misery we're in.
As someone who made such a public gesture of support for a cause you believed in, what would you instruct today's athletes in terms of using their platform to progress ideas of social justice?
I wouldn't instruct them to do anything. What I would suggest they do is research everything they're involved in. Whatever their views are, make sure they research they have a full understanding and a strong foundation.
Because once they go out and start making statements about social issues, they will be confronted from various entities. And you have to be able to expound upon what you're saying, why you're saying it, and how you feel before and after you said it.
Do you see any parallels between '68 and '16?
I would say they're running parallel. We received a lot of cosmetics over the years, but as I stated, they're cosmetics. You're making something look good that don't really look as good. And we gotta get away from doing the cosmetic makeups for these ills in society, and to start put a new face on it all together.
We have to resolve these issues—stop talking at the issues, and start talking to the issues.
What do you mean by "cosmetic makeup"?
When money comes into the game—a lot of money's come into the sports world since I got there—they feel cosmetically, we can make this individual look good. It's like the Good Times episode on TV, versus George Jefferson on TV. They made George look good, but his circumstances were pretty much the same.
He looked better than the Good Times family looked, but basically they had the same issues they were dealing with.
Are you saying that the athletes speaking superficially because of fear of their financial repercussions?
No, I don't think they're concerned about the financial repercussions. In '68, we had far more to lose than these individuals because we didn't have shit. We were striving to get something. These individuals are multi-millionaires, and realize for the first time in their lives that they work for this or that entity. They realize that entity is the cow who gives the milk, and at the same time, they realize that they're the grass the cow has to eat in order to give the milk.
Without grass, there's no cow. As long as there's a fair understanding of the roles both play, there's a vested interest in trying to solve these social issues.
As you say, there was a lot to lose when you held your fist up at the 1968 Olympics. Athletics wasn't as compensated as it is today. Given that, do you think you'd do it again?
Shit, if I needed to do it tomorrow in my little venue, I'd step up to the plate with no hesitation. That's like someone stepping on my neck and I can't breathe, but I'm afraid to tell them to get off my neck for fear they'd be upset with me. Should I ask them to get off my neck to let me live?
Have you been following the Olympics at all?
I'm glad they let a man who smoked weed carry the American flag. Now they can never come back and tell me it's indecent that black people smoke weed.
We had our greatest Olympian smoke weed and he carried the American flag. Don't tell me from one side of your mouth that it's OK because he's an Olympian, and then tell me it's bad to smoke weed.
I'm glad they allowed Michael Phelps to carry the flag, despite the fact that he likes to smoke weed, and I would think that they wouldn't be so harsh on individuals right now who are incarcerated as a result of selling weed.
Do you think this Olympics, then, needs another Black Power salute moment?
That question is not for you to put to me. You ask yourself that question. Don't put me in the boat and send me out there. That's something you need to put to yourself and your readers.
I figured you're someone who has a unique degree of insight on the issue.
I've thought about it, but you gotta wait and see what happens. I can't put no predictions on these individuals. All I can say is you should research what you're getting involved in, period.
I acted on my convictions and what I thought was morally right or wrong. I can't tell them to think or feel like me. They gotta search their minds and their moral character and make their decision as to what is good or what is bad. That's their role.
I'm still waiting on an apology for Brent Musburger.
What'd he say?
You don't know the history?
I know a lot of the history! Maybe not this part of the history.
I thought Brent Musburger owed me an apology. First of all, I think he owes all black people an apology for calling me and Dr. Smith "black-skinned stormtroopers." You know what that means? He called me a Neo-Nazi.
And I think it's a shame he was able to use those narratives in 1968, and then an even greater shame for ESPN and ABC to hire this dude and let him make millions of dollars of those same black athletes we were stepping up for in '68 and stepping up for today.
He said I didn't have a right to step up and speak on the human element, the human issues that we had facing us.
He knew, as a reporter, that was our platform. But he chose to take that shit and make it something else. And then they chose to reward him and pay him handsomely for making derogatory statement he made.
Have you spoken to him recently?
About what? He's an arrogant piece of shit. What am I going to speak to him about?
Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.