Five decades before a backup NFL quarterback used the national anthem to tell America it can do better — enraging a U.S. president and millions of others, suffering the personal and professional consequences — John Carlos did the same.
He was the original.
He paid his dues, put in the time, working for social change for so long that he and Tommie Smith, his teammate on that Olympic podium in Mexico City, became the gold standard of athlete activism. They’re now so revered for their conviction and courage during the bubbling-over racial cauldron of the 1960s that there are statues of them on their college campus at San Jose State.
Carlos is now 72 years old. But he still can’t smell the roses. Or catch barely a sniff of satisfaction for all the work put in. His voice is raspy. He sounds exhausted. He knew it wasn’t over, this centuries-old cage fight for human rights. He just figured there would be more enlightened soldiers by now.
“It’s been a wakeup call for the last 50 f—ing years to let them know,” Carlos says from his home in Atlanta. “Excuse my language.”
“Like I been sayin’ for 50 years, there ain’t no neutrality. You gotta be on one side or the other. This man [President Donald Trump] is pushing them to make a decision, to find out who they really are. It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.”
You don’t want to be a sucka for all eternity.
John Wooten was blocking for Jim Brown in Cleveland and learned a brother needed help: Muhammad Ali was facing charges for refusing to fight the war in Vietnam. Wooten began calling famous black athletes willing to stand with Ali at the Cleveland Summit. From Brown to the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they all said, “No problem, we’ll be there.”
He knew it wouldn’t be over in 1967 when he stood behind The Greatest and alongside Bill Russell at that historic conclave of change agents. But 50 years later, Wooten is 80 years old, and there’s no sense of triumph for him either. No sense of finality in his war against inequality.
It’s going on midnight at his home in Arlington, Texas. He’s tired, the words tumbling slowly and deliberately through the receiver.
“It’s obvious to me that nowhere does our president understand the Constitution of this country,” says Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in the coaching ranks and front offices of the NFL. “Because those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.”
Wooten has a couple of more thoughts before going to bed, so he can get up and fight tomorrow.
“When does unsportsmanlike conduct come in when men are standing to show this country that they are concerned about the young people being killed across the country? Are the football players and athletes to pretend this doesn’t exist?”
These two athletic icons for human rights know that change comes embarrassingly slowly. Fighting for it is soul-siphoning hard. Discouragement and defeat are just as frequent, if not more frequent, than success and victory. It wears you down and can leave you bitter.
“Listen, man, they are out there all the time,” said Carlos of the racists in our midst. “When they come, they come in numbers. The real sad thing is, they’re more united than we’ve ever been. Even people now, they think these dudes [protesting] hate their country instead of fighting for a better world and saying we can do better. Fifty years after Tommie and me, really, how far have we come?”
Next summer is the golden anniversary of Carlos and Smith bowing their heads, standing on the podium without shoes to symbolize American poverty, and raising their gloved fists. The next day they were expelled from the U.S. team and sent home. For the next 10 years, “my life was hell,” Carlos told Vox last year. He lost much more than money: friends, his marriage. They loved him. But they were scared they, too, would be ostracized.
Ali’s anti-war position was blasphemy to many Americans in 1967. But “we didn’t care about any perceived threats,” Wooten told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer this past year to mark the summit’s anniversary. “We weren’t concerned because we weren’t going to waver. We were unified. We all had a real relationship with each other, and we knew we were doing something for the betterment of all.”
The country forked in thought with some repulsed and others viewing their acts as courageous.
Just like … now.
“Why does it take for [Trump] to make that one statement to make all [players] react now, when they know they should’ve reacted earlier anyway?” Carlos said. “They should have been out there a long time ago to support [Colin] Kaepernick and Michael Bennett. They all should have been rallying around them.
“But Trump done put it on the line now and told them, ‘If you do it, we gon’ spank your a–.’ And that’s a threat. So now it’s on the owners — should they disrespect the will of their players, their human rights?”
Says Wooten: “I hope these players will … show the president and the country the unity felt by all of us who want to see a better, more just world. And that those who feel it is an affront to patriotism will one day see that this act of solidarity is about making America better, not worse.”
Many NFL owners locked arms with their players on Sunday. Some released statements in support of their socially conscious employees. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith bonded over a common enemy.
Wooten is more measured than Carlos, who is animated, sometimes angry and trying ineffectually to avoid a public scrap with Trump.
“The man is creating so much division in the country,” he continued. “You better get ready for the next Civil War, brother. Not to mention the wall. What can I say, man? If I get out there right now, I’m going to lambaste the man so bad, ’cause I ain’t gonna hold s— back about where his mind his. I don’t want to get into no running battle with this fool.”
Voice rising, Carlos is spiritually back in the ’60s. And, of course, that’s the most wrenching part: Fifty years later, not enough has changed.
Large chunks of our society don’t see black men kneeling for racial justice and a more equitable country. They see people demeaning Arlington National Cemetery’s dead.
Wooten and Carlos know of this historical bait and switch. They refuse to allow #TakeAKnee to be reframed as a referendum on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s a protest of police brutality and racism, the often senseless killing of black men by overwhelmingly white law enforcement. That’s it.
“You would think the NFL is a Hollywood show now, the way they promote it on TV, where it’s about family and inclusive and we’re all happy,” Carlos says derisively.
“Until we go into a meeting to find out why this young man isn’t in the NFL now playing. He’s played for several years. He’s gone to the Super Bowl. He’s better than a lot of quarterbacks in the league. Why is it that he’s not playing? But [Goodell] refuses to answer and address that, and the public refuses to demand him to do that. And everybody eats it up and does nothing.”
Carlos is resigned to the fact that most people will never care as much as he does. Wooten is more hopeful, if equally tired. For 50 years, nothing has happened quickly for either of them.
It’s the right fight; it’s just not an easy one. You devote your life to something for that long, you pay a price. People get burned out. It’s deflating.
But the best of them keep going, because they know the alternative. It’s too important, too ingrained in their identities. Today’s players need their wisdom and strength now just as Ali and Smith needed them then.
John Carlos is 72. John Wooten is 80. Their joints throb. They’re tired. And 50 years later, they still live for the fight.