GILROY, Calif. (Reuters) - John Carlos, whose bronze medal at the 1968 Olympics was overshadowed by his raised-fist protest on the medal podium, said the recent demonstrations by National Football League players are “shock treatment” for the American people.
Now 71, Carlos applauds San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players who are using their huge televised platform to speak out against racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.
“He’s bringing attention to (the issues). And how did he bring attention to them? The same way we did 48 years ago in terms of giving America shock treatment. That’s the only way they move, man: is when you shock them,” Carlos told Reuters in an interview Monday at his son’s home in Gilroy, California.
The 28-year-old Kaepernick sparked controversy when he began the protest by refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” during preseason games in America’s most popular sports league. Since then, several others have followed suit by kneeling during the anthem or raising a fist.
The raised-fist demonstration echoes the protest by Carlos and his American teammate and gold medalist, Tommie Smith, after they placed in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympic Games.
Barefoot on the podium in Mexico City, the two Americans bowed their heads and pushed their black-gloved fists into the air. They shocked the world and many Americans reeling from a turbulent year in the fight for civil rights. They were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and sent home early.
The demonstration, which Carlos said was about bringing together people of color in solidarity, became one of the most iconic images of protest in sport.
The protests in the NFL have surfaced some two years after a new civil rights movement against police brutality and racial discrimination mushroomed and came to be known as Black Lives Matter.
That movement grew out of the fatal police shooting of unarmed, black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and has been fueled by a stream of high-profile police killings of unarmed black people since.
Carlos said both the NFL protests and Black Lives Matter were connected to the struggles against racial injustice in the past, including his raised-fist protest and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“We were gardeners and caretakers. We till the earth. We plant the seeds. We water the ground. And what you see today is the fruit of our labor,” Carlos said. “This is a movement, this is not a moment.”
On Monday night, Kaepernick is set to take the field against the Los Angeles Rams in the team’s season opener. The sports world will have its eyes set on Kaepernick during the game’s national anthem, a day after several fellow NFL players showed solidarity with his demonstration.
About two-thirds of the players in the NFL are African-American.
NFL games draw tens of millions of viewers every week, meaning that while Kaepernick and others have found many supportive voices, their demonstrations have also provoked anger in many who see the gesture as disrespecting the U.S. flag, the military and the nation in general.
Carlos said that after his demonstration in 1968 he faced fierce criticism as well. He likened his struggle to that of his father who he said fought in the military overseas only to return home to the same racism he faced before leaving.
Carlos’ protest in 1968 and Kaepernick’s decades later were meant to draw attention to the same struggles of racism and injustice in America that persist, he said.
“All we’re saying is we wrap ourselves around the American flag, but the American flag, we want you to wrap your arms around us. And be true about it,” Carlos said.
Reporting by Curtis Skinner and Alan Devall; Editing by Mary Milliken