Music Is Motivation For Olympian John Carlos

The image of John Carlos raising a black-gloved fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics became a symbol of the Civil Rights era. Last year, he published "The John Carlos Story," which detailed the trouble he faced after that gesture. Now Carlos tells listeners what music inspires him in Tell Me More's occasional series "In Your Ear."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we hear from another former Olympian who is known for both his athleticism and his activism, John Carlos. In the 1968 Olympics, the track and field star won bronze in the 200 meters in Mexico City. When Carlos and his teammate Tommie Smith took to the medals stand for the national anthem, they bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists in a nod to the Civil Rights struggles back home in the U.S. It remains one of the most iconic images in the history of both the Olympics and the Civil Rights movement. Although, as you might remember, John Carlos and Tommie Smith were heavily criticized at the time.

We spoke with John Carlos a while back about that period of his life and his memoir "The John Carlos Story." Now for our occasional series, In Your Ear, John Carlos shares some of the music that continues to inspire him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

JOHN CARLOS: I'm John Carlos, known for track and field. I used to say John Carlos is my name and track and field is my game. And I have a few songs that struck me through the years that stayed with me as a part of my M.O., who I am.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

CARLOS: The first song that I like to say is by Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday came out with a song called "Strange Fruit." I can tell you about the song I want you to listen to the song yourself because it represents the feeling of many blacks throughout the South.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern Trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

CARLOS: Then from there, time went by. Nina Simone sang a song with passion and emotion relative to the plight of black people as well, and that was called "Mississippi Goddam."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Don't tell me, I'll tell you, me and my people just about due. I've been there so I know, they keep on saying go slow.

CARLOS: Why that song means so much to me? Because through my travels through the South, there were so many individuals that were saying, why us? Why now? When will it end?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE DARKER THAN BLUE")

CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) Now I know we have great respect for the sister, and mother, it's even better yet.

CARLOS: And then the climax everything was a young man and I think was ingenious in all of his music was Curtis Mayfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE DARKER THAN BLUE")

MAYFIELD: (Singing) When the time comes and we are really free, there'll be no brothers, left you see. We people who are darker than blue, don't let us hang around this town and let what others say come true.

CARLOS: If you were to listen to the lyrics of all those songs it would make you understand why anyone should want to stand up and fight for justice and equality for all men, particularly black men and women and children.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE DARKER THAN BLUE")

MAYFIELD: (Singing) We're just good for nothing they all figure, a boyish, grown up, shiftless jigger. Now we can't hardly stand for that or is that really where it's at?

MARTIN: That was John Carlos, Olympic bronze medalist telling us what's playing in his ear. We just heard "We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue" by Curtis Mayfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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