Coming Full Circle: A Lecture With John Carlos

February 21 is a day that homage is paid from the time the hand strikes midnight until the hand is sitting on 11:59 P.M. The reason that is the case is because it marks the day that Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in New York. The masses like to regurgitate other dates of fallen figures in history, and I get it. However, February 21st is the day that means the most to me, and while I grew up with a dad in the house, as well as countless male role models in my childhood and early adulthood, Malcolm X more than did his part to teach me how to hold my head high and be a real man.

About a month or so ago, something happened that I am still in disbelief about. Well, it started almost ten years ago in a story I have told a couple of times already, but there were some developments that took place after those stories were told. Anyway, I was sitting in the hallway at school one evening getting ready to lead a study hall for the women’s basketball team, and as I sat down with my dinner and was getting on them for making too much noise in the hallway, I looked up and saw a flyer advertising an upcoming event. As I peered closer, the name of the featured speaker leapt off the page: Dr. John Carlos.

I couldn’t believe it. John Carlos, one of the greatest men who ever lived, was coming to Tyler? Granted, he ran track at East Texas State, which is now known as Texas A&M – Commerce, where I am currently working towards my doctorate (the irony!), so the Lone Star ties were in full effect.  Still, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. One of my heroes was coming to town, and that was pretty much all I could think about, and to think: if I hadn’t been summoned to run the kiddos’ study hall that night, I’m not sure when I would have heard about him coming to town. Nonetheless, it was on like Donkey Kong. John Carlos, medalist at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and a man who I’ve read countless stories and watched numerous documentaries about was coming, and dammit, I was going to be there.

Two days ago, I went through the rigors of a regular day and as much as I love my job and my kiddos, the entire day was devoted to that evening, making the drive a few miles down the road and getting a front row seat to hear any and everything that John Carlos had to say. I arrived early, sat next to Coach T., the women’s basketball coach at TJC; Damien, the Dean of Students; B.J., my podna in the police department; The Great Dr. Otis Webster, my old-school mentor in the Psychology department, along with a group of students from TJC and awaited the start of an event that had been in the making since the day I asked my homie for his black t-shirt with the image of Tommie Smith, Peter Norman and John Carlos on the front years ago.

As soon as John Carlos strolled onto the stage with that old-school walk that people know old-school players tend to have, I was thrilled. After the president of the university went on to list a gazillion of The Good Doctor’s accomplishments, the man of the hour took the mic. He gave an extended lecture about responsibility, faith, service, the times back in his day and what led to the moment in Mexico City. A lot of what he said is stuff I knew, because I did my homework for years, but there’s nothing like hearing it directly from the source. With that, it was like learning it all for the first time. Had he spoke and walked off the stage, I still would have considered it one of the best nights of my life…but he didn’t. There was more.

After the lecture, Coach T. and I went backstage and got a chance to meet Dr. Carlos. Now bear with me here: I rarely get starstruck or overly excited to meet anybody. The list of people who would probably make me lose my mind if I had the chance to meet them is relatively short (Bill Russell, Halle Berry, John Thompson), but this wasn’t just anybody.  This was someone whose image I had on my wall as an undergrad as well as grad school and the only reason that print isn’t on my wall now is because I broke the frame it was in when I was moving out of my last apartment. This was one of the first figures who truly made me want to seek out history for myself.

Anyway, after waiting 10-15 minutes, I walked up to Dr. Carlos and he extended his hand and we gave each other one of those old-school, grown-man handshakes and hugs. We soon began to shoot the breeze, and trust, I was not in a hurry to go anywhere then. See, I waited 10-15 minutes on purpose so anyone else who wanted to talk to him or get an autograph could, because once I got to him, I wasn’t going to give a damn about a line. I was going to take my time and shoot the breeze with him, and that’s exactly what we ended up doing.

We talked about the statue at San Jose State University that was built in he and Tommie Smith’s honor and he had me laughing when he told me what he told the university when they called him about initially having a plan for the statue (I won’t repeat the colorful language, but take my word for it. It was funny as hell). I told him about Celia and I shocking the world a few years ago and wandering around the campus until we found the statue and how we took about 137 pictures of it, around it and next to it. We shot the breeze about plenty more and after taking a few pictures and bullcrapping some more, I let whoever was behind me go ahead and I took it to the house.

If one was to tell me that wanting a t-shirt back in undergrad with the image of three iconic runners would eventually end in what happened last night, I wouldn’t have believed them, but that’s life for you. You never truly know what to expect. All that’s left is to be thankful that I was around long enough to experience it. John Carlos was always someone who went right up there with all of the great people I recognize in history and February 19th solidified it even more.

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