Sunday July 13th, 2008

They send the hard cases to John Carlos. Take José, here. According to a form filled out by a librarian at Palm Springs (Calif.) High, José is guilty of "defiance -- refusing to follow library rules regarding loudness and horseplay."

And so José has been remanded to Room 906, where he takes a seat under the baleful gaze of Carlos, who serves as an "in-school suspension supervisor" and who, come to think of it, knows a little something about defiance.

Forty years after he and Tommie Smith thrust black-gloved fists into the night sky at the Mexico City Olympics, Carlos, 63, has found stability -- he is in his 24th year at the school -- love and respect. The sprinters who were booted from those Games, reviled as militants and traitors (a young Chicago American columnist, Brent Musburger, described them as "black-skinned storm troopers"), stand revealed, in the fullness of time, as American heroes. In 2005 they were invited to San Jose State, where they had run as collegians, for the unveiling of a 20-foot-high sculpture, by an artist named Rigo 23, capturing their silent protest. If the university had not exactly welcomed them back with open arms in '68, it has sought to make amends. The spring before the unveiling, San Jose State presented them with honorary doctorates.

It is actually somewhat refreshing to see that the doctorate and the statue and the inductions to various halls of fame have not smoothed all the burrs from Carlos' personality -- the same abrasive edge that surfaced before big meets, when he would announce his presence by saying, "Ain't nothin' new, but the rent's due, and we are here to collect." He was also known to growl to his opponents, while backing into the blocks, "I'll save you n----s a piece of the tape."

When a reporter calls from across town, informing Carlos that he's running late, the former Olympian does not bother to mask his irritation.

"I'll be there in 15," vows the scribe.

"Well, I hope so," comes the reply.

When his visitor arrives, however, Carlos is cordial and generous with his time. The figure that emerges, as he leans back to reflect on his younger self, is independent, strong-headed, bordering on obstinate.

Carlos grew up in Harlem, one of five children of a cobbler, Earl, and a nurse's aide, Vioris. His parents never saw John run. "They were always working," Carlos says. "They did their jobs."

After starring at Machine and Metal Trades High on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he accepted a track scholarship to East Texas State in Commerce -- a decision he soon came to regret. "About two minutes after I got there," he recalls, "I noticed that my name changed from John Carlos to Boy." One afternoon the following spring, on the eve of the Lone Star Conference championships, a coach gave Carlos what was, in his view, a ridiculously taxing workout. In protest Carlos walked the backstretch of one of his sprints, prompting the coach to pick up a hammer and walk menacingly toward him. Says Carlos, "I remember telling him, 'That hammer better be licorice because I'm gonna make you eat it.'"

Carlos transferred to San Jose State the following year, 1967. There, legendary track coach Bud Winter presided over the team known as Speed City. Its breathtaking collection of athletes included not just Smith (who would eventually hold 11 world records), but Lee Evans and Ronnie Ray Smith, both of whom would also win gold in Mexico City. If San Jose State had been a country at those Games, it would have tied for 12th in the gold medal standings, ahead of Italy, Kenya, Cuba and Yugoslavia.

As a transfer, Carlos was ineligible to compete for the Spartans in '67. But he worked out with the team -- and he attended meetings of a movement called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), the brainchild of a brilliant 24year-old graduate student named Harry Edwards, who'd played basketball and run track at San Jose State.

The outspoken Edwards had already drawn national attention to the plight of black college athletes: the dearth of black coaches, the housing discrimination black athletes faced in college towns. In the run-up to the Games, Edwards wanted to explode the myth that sports had become a citadel of interracial harmony and brotherhood. "We knew that was a bunch of nonsense because we were living it every day," he says.

The possibility of a boycott by black American athletes made international news, and even if it wasn't a serious option, it resulted in death threats to Edwards, Smith, Carlos and many others right up to the Games. On Oct. 16, at the end of his semifinal heat in the 200 meters in Mexico City, Smith felt a sharp pain in his left leg. He'd pulled his adductor muscle, but his first thought was that he'd been shot.

Smith iced the leg, went for a light jog, then tried a few sprints at less than 100 percent. The leg held up. Less than four hours later he and Carlos raced in the 200 final. Carlos led his teammate by 1 1/2 meters as they entered the straightaway. Then the 6'3", long-striding Smith blew past his fellow American with an otherworldly burst. He finished in 19.83 seconds, a world record that would hold up for 11 years. Carlos, who now claims that he gave the race to Smith, was also nipped at the line by Peter Norman of Australia, who would show his solidarity by wearing an OPHR button on the medal stand.

In the moments before the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos talked about how to proceed with some form of silent protest. They still can't agree on whose idea it was. While he declined to be interviewed for this story, Smith, 64, recounts in his autobiography, Silent Gesture, how his wife at the time had purchased a pair of gloves in Mexico City while shopping with Carlos's first wife, Kim. "I was thinking about wearing both gloves," Smith writes, "but what good would that do? That was when I talked to John about wearing one."

"I know it was my idea," counters Carlos, wearily. "Mr. Smith wants to say it was his idea. It's irrelevant. What's more important is the fact that it was done."

As the strains of The Star-Spangled Banner filled the Olympic stadium, the Americans, standing shoeless, bowed their heads, and each raised a gloved fist, creating one of the most searing images in the history of sports.

The reaction in Mexico City and back home was swift and sustained. Consider the backdrop. With the Vietnam War, the assassinations that year of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the tumult of the Democratic Convention in Chicago and riots in dozens of American cities that summer, "you had a lot going on," says Carlos.

While their gesture was everywhere described as a "black power salute," both men beg to differ. The focus of the OPHR, Smith writes, was "human rights, not civil rights, nothing to do with the [Black] Panthers or Black Power -- all humanity, even those who denied us ours."

Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team, cast out of the Olympic Village and given 48 hours to leave the country. They arrived home to calumny, contempt and more death threats. "I got a letter from some guy who told me he was gonna kill my father and send me pieces of him in the mail," Carlos says. "That's one that stuck with me."

Carlos ran for one more year at San Jose State and made it count, leading the Spartans to their first NCAA track and field title, in 1969. Following a forgettable, injury-plagued three-year interlude in pro football, he fell off the radar.

Living in Southern California with Kim and their two young children, he made ends meet by taking "menial jobs, security jobs -- whatever job I could do to survive. I'd get enough so I could go up to Vegas and roll dice to get a couple thousand dollars to feed my family."

Dire financial straits -- the direct result, he believes, of his act of conscience in Mexico City -- strained his marriage. In 1977, shortly after he and Kim had split up, "she took her own life," he says, his eyes misting. "The stigma they put on me," he says, meaning everyone who denied him work or ostracized him for that moment on the victory stand, "it took just as big a toll on her."

He remembers sitting at the window of his apartment shortly after Kim's death. "It was raining like hell. And I thought, Life is like a football game. In the first half, I got my ass beat. Thank God it's the second half. I'm coming out, I'm kicking ass and taking names." He remarried in 1983 and was hired by Palm Springs High the next year.

It was Dr. King who posited that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." With the passing of decades, Carlos and Smith have seen their images rehabilitated, but their story contains a lingering sad note: Yoked in history though they are, they don't get along.

Carlos talks far too much to suit the more introspective Smith, who devotes hundreds of words in his book to the alleged logorrhea of his former teammate. But Carlos's most unpardonable offense, by far, was to claim that he let Smith win that race. "That will break up a friendship right there," Smith writes.

For his part, following his 2003 induction into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Carlos was stunned to read this passage in Smith's book: "[W]hat did he do to get into the Hall of Fame? He didn't win a gold medal. He had the 100-meter world record for about a minute. ... It's another thing he has because of being on that victory stand with me." It's difficult to reconcile the author of these breathtakingly petty sentiments with the man who perpetrated one of the great acts of moral courage in the history of sports.

"You'll never know how much it bothers me," says Carlos of his estrangement from Smith (who from 1978 through his retirement in 2005 served on the faculty and coached track at Santa Monica College). "After 40 years it's gotten to the point where I've said, 'God, it's yours. I can't deal with it no more.'"

"I'll tell you what's going on," says Edwards, now professor emeritus of sociology at Cal. "They're trying to figure out what happened 40 years ago. They had no idea that, 40 years after the fact, there'd be a statue of them on San Jose State's campus. But now people ask them for explanations, so they go back and try to figure it out. But at the end of the day, what you have is two old dudes sitting at the end of the bar, an hour before closing time, telling war stories. And every night the stories change. The only thing that really matters is that they became the iconic emblems of an era that changed how we look at, and how we deal with, developments at the intersection of race, sports and society.

"And it was overdue. Just as Muhammad Ali was not like Joe Louis, and Curt Flood was not like Jackie Robinson, Carlos and Smith were not like Jesse Owens. It was time for us to break with our fathers."

Dr. King's arc may bend toward justice. But it shows no signs of bending toward a reconciliation between two men who once so memorably shared a pair of gloves.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.