The Power of Nonviolent Protest

This year’s observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day brought the ideals and legacy of Dr. King to life through the inspiring visit of Dr. John Carlos, Olympic athlete and activist, and his biographer, award-winning journalist Dave Zirin. Though some might say that politics have no place in sports, both guests were articulate in talking about the intersection of social justice and the athletic arena – a place where inequities and discrimination can be glaring. In word and deed, they effectively illuminated the “murky place where sports and politics collide,” as Mr. Zirin described it.

With Texas tornado warnings delaying Dr. Carlos’ flight on the afternoon of January 16, Mr. Zirin ably started their presentation by screening and then discussing his short film about the politics of sports, entitled “Not Just a Game.” Noting that flags and military flyovers at athletic events may also be interpreted as political statements, he showed just how entwined sports and social justice have always been, citing examples like Jackie Robinson breaking “the baseball color line” in 1947 and tennis champ Billie Jean King dominating the “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. Today, many forget that in the midst of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, heavyweight boxing champion and conscientious objector Muhammad Ali risked his titles and career by refusing to join the military. As Mr. Zirin summarized, “We think of politics as being antithetical to sports, but real courage is standing up for something you believe in.”

Arriving at the program’s conclusion, Dr. Carlos joined Mr. Zirin and a crowd of students for dinner and an evening reception. Generously, the guests held another all-school assembly the following morning to focus more closely on Dr. Carlos’ story.

As the bronze-winning sprinter in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Dr. Carlos and his teammate, gold medalist Tommie Smith, drew the world’s attention when they raised their black-gloved fists in a salute of protest on the medal stand as the American national anthem played. Their gesture in support of human rights – and the hateful backlash that ensued – later became the subject of The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, co-written by Dr. Carlos and Mr. Zirin. Expelled from the Games – along with the Australian silver medalist, Peter Norman, who supported their protest by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge – the athletes became the focus of abuse and even death threats for years afterward.

Believing that he “was born for that mission,” Dr. Carlos asserted that he did not regret standing up for human rights. “When you become the best,” he explained, “you have an opportunity to express what’s in your soul.” His instinctive resolve was further galvanized by a personal meeting with Dr. King himself in March 1968. There, Dr. King suggested that a boycott of the Summer Games could “make a powerful and nonviolent statement,” an idea Dr. Carlos described as “a jewel he gave me.” He was also deeply impressed with Dr. King’s mission to “stand for those who can’t stand for themselves” – an especially courageous conviction in light of a threatening letter Dr. King had received that stated, “There’s a bullet with your name on it, and you won’t have to wait long.” Only ten days after that meeting, Dr. King was assassinated.

“They took his life, but he became larger than life,” Dr. Carlos reflected. “His being concerned about his fellow man lives on and made me more determined to make this world better for all individuals.” Stressing his belief in nonviolent protest and in discussing issues with those who have opposing views, he emphasized, “We are looking for two things – love and respect – on this planet. You don’t have to like me, but I want you to respect me.” Given the enthusiastic response they received on campus, both he and Mr. Zirin can have no doubt of the friendship and respect they earned at Middlesex.