Civil rights icon John Carlos shares an inspiring talk in Stratford

A crowded Stratford venue hosted a conversation with John Carlos- a man forever associated with the iconic image of the black power salute - and showed he still has the fire that burned 44 years ago.

For almost two hours he shared details on the pivotal moments of his life that shaped his future as a prominent figure at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights and equality for black Americans.

Although John Carlos is strongly associated with the photo on the winners podium in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the journey that took the Harlem raised boy there began many years before. Even, according to John, before his entry to the world on June 5 1945.

The audience at the Stratford Picturehouse soaked up every titbit of information he shared with them, from the conversations with his ‘stern’ father, to the children going hungry for days and life in the ‘salad bowl’ of a diverse Harlem to the harsh reality of discovering that the colour of his skin was a bar to him learning to swim.

When he was nine he told his father, Earl, that he wanted to be the first black swimmer in the Olympics. Two years later, his father rubbed the skin on his hand and said: “Son you are never going to be able to do that because of the colour of your skin.”

Very early in his conversation John said: “If I’m an icon, then everybody in the audience is an icon - I’m going to eat, sleep and die just like you. I had the opportunity to get in touch with the man in the mirror very early in my life.”

He said he looked at things in terms of what was right or wrong, not in terms of educated or uneducated, not in terms of racism. “I simply looked at was right in society and was wrong in society.”

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He recounted his meetings with the likes of Malcom X, Martin Luther King as they talked about the possibility of boycotting the 1968 Olympics.

In those days he was known as John Carlos the troublemaker, now he is called an icon. He also talked about Mahatma Gandhi - making the point that he too was branded a troublemaker. He told the audience: “If you get called a troublemaker because you think outside the box, don’tworry because you are in damn good company.”

After that world famous salute, there were repercussions. He said he was cast off like an ice drift, avoided like someone who had leprosy. And there were personal consquences too - his wife took her own life and his children suffered too.

John Carlos was at the Stratford Picturehouse as part of a two-week speaking tour. His biography, The John Carlos Story, is also out now.