John Carlos and My Charmed Academic Life

I’ve lived something of a charmed academic life. I’ve been incredibly fortunate and lucky in the opportunities I’ve had. My advisors at every level have been top-notch and selfless. Incredibly encouraging and passionate about their student’s success. The institutions have been equally giving, even if no one has heard of my undergraduate institution or I get funny looks when I say my master’s degree is from Nevada.

Tonight I was reminded of this charmed life when I met 1968 Olympic 200m bronze medalist, John Carlos. The Black Cultural Center here at Purdue sponsored the talk. Carlos chose to speak here, instead of attend the track and field hall of fame induction ceremony. His Grandson is a current Purdue student (and a fraternity brother of one of my students this semester). You could tell that this familial connection was important to Carlos. So was talking to a young crowd. He shared a lot of personal, family stories. He spoke little of his athletic career or Olympic moment, and instead encouraged us to stand up for what is right, to not be fooled by the distractions of mass media, and reminded us that we can’t go back in time to change our choices. This last point stems from his experience in 1968.

A major theme of his talk was sacrifice in the face of criticism. Any movement, any major achievement, requires sacrifice. And that sacrifice is not momentary. It’s often lifelong. Sometimes it is a stigma, sometimes it’s mistreatment, other times it’s delayed gratification. Carlos experienced bits and pieces of all of theses. Yet, he’s extremely proud of his actions and statements. He knew he was right — and firmly believes that what’s right never changes. His actions were misunderstood — and continue to be — and opposed by many then, though now they’re largely celebrated. People thought he was advocating Black Power, but according to Carlos, “the only black power was my black ass running down that track.”

Narratives, however, painted him as radical and anti-American. This confusion has often overshadowed the Olympic Project for Human Rights and his own commitment to the larger civil rights movement. He laughs when people trying to re-write that history, but kindly explains what he was and continues to be about, encouraging them to join his cause.

Encouraging people to join his cause — the cause for civil and human rights — is important, increasingly so, he argues. This is our life, our history, and our time to deal with what’s right and wrong, he said. We can’t keep waiting for “more time” because it will never come. We’ve got to wake up and look beyond the media narratives that discounted him for so long, and continue to ignore or move past serious social ills, and act. Indeed, he is particularly worried and concerned about the future given the rise of police violence and continued systemic inequality.

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John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s iconic salute on the 200m medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics

The talk was humorous, heartfelt, and inspiring. It was clear that it came from his soul. Carlos wants young people to continue the fight, think critically about the world they live in, and work to make a difference. One line from early in his talk to this effect particularly struck me. We have such a “fear of offending our oppressors” he said, but we must not let it limit our right to express ourselves and stand up for what is right. In the end, that is his message to all of us and the way he has tried to live his life.

Hearing those words from Carlos meant so much to me. I’ve long looked up to him and Tommie Smith. I had the iconic poster of the two of them on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics on the wall of my dorm room my freshman year. I was a track athlete and loved their bravery, but back then I don’t think I ever fully understood what it really meant. That image, however, was one of my first introductions into the connections of history and sport.

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John Carlos and I at Purdue University, October 2015.

Now, here I am tonight, sharing the story that I heard firsthand from a man I looked up for most of my adolescent life. I even had my photo taken with him on stage after the event. I live a charmed life.

What’s insane about all of this is, this isn’t the first time I have met one of my heroes. In the summer of 2010 I met 1964 Olympic 10,000m Gold Medalist Billy Mills for the first time. Mills was the main subject of my master’s thesis. That summer, I was in Lawrence doing research on him at KU and Haskell that summer, when I serendipitously learned he was in town and giving a free public talk. I already had a mutual friend with Mills — a fellow Baker University track alum, Mark Misch — who promised to introduce us, but providence intervened.

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Billy Mills and I at the Haskell Cultural Center, June 2010.

Meeting him meant the world to me. I grew up in Kansas, running cross country and track. The state cross country meet for class 5A and 6A schools is annually held at the University of Kansas’ Rim Rock Farm. The course is decorated with silhouettes of Kansas’ most famous runners and many of its features — such as hills, curves, and bridges — are named for them. The final hill of the course bares his name. It’s called the Billy Mills Ascent. It was hell. A near 400m hill that separated you from the sprint. Your legs burned and ached as you pushed yourself to the summit, where you could see the finish line 400m away. The hill tested your resolve and endurance, and only the best prepared dared to attempt a final kick after it. In high school we trained all year with that hill in mind. Every Wednesday my team did hill repeats until our cool down was nothing more than a walk/job. That hill was on our minds. We knew it by name. We knew what it meant — perseverance, toughness, and survival. What today, in the traditional of Gerald Vizenor, you might call survivance. It was an ode to both Billy Mills’ championship and his struggle.

Mills and I met again 6 months later, this time at his house in Sacramento. He generously invited me to spent a cold January day with him and his wife, Patricia. I came away with over 6-hours of recording as we chatted about his life, pre-and-post ’64. It was a remarkably engaging and intimate conversation. He was so open and giving, willing to move beyond his usual rote and rehearsed talk. Without the generosity, my master’s thesis — and probably my academic career — would not have been possible.

My thesis was the first major study of Billy Mills. I connected his life to Jim Thorpe and evolving federal Indian policy to describe and interpret the conditions that framed his life and connect his impact to that larger history.  When I finished my thesis that summer, I shipped him a bound copy. Both he and Pat read it. They loved it and asked about getting more copies, prompting discussions about the future of the project.

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Billy Mills, Purdue Native American Students, and I at Purdue University, October 2014.

Since then we’ve stayed in touch, mostly through Facebook, and become friends. They visited Purdue last fall and requested that I be invited to have lunch with them.  They wanted to catch up, and continue our conversation from years ago. It was another charmed connection. Another surreal moment with one of my heroes.

In addition to meeting these sporting heroes, I’ve also had the chance to meet a variety of inspiring academics. Last year I had tea with Michale Oriard — the eminent scholar of football. We sat and talked for nearly two hours about his books (which are required reading for any football scholar), my research, our thoughts on higher education, and more. Oriard played football at Notre Dame and later for the Kansas City Chiefs — my hometown NFL team. So, of course, Kansas City and barbecue was yet another topic. A similar moment occurred last week, when I was invited to have lunch with Bruce Schulman, a leading political historian from Boston University. Bruce was friendly and encouraging. He enjoyed hearing about my dissertation and, though it was a brief conversation, offered some constructive thoughts on the topic.

Perhaps I’m making too much of these moments. Maybe I need to let go of my inner fanboy. But whenever I think of them — and my insane ESPN appearance in August — I can’t but help wonder if I am living a dream. Meeting my heroes, hearing them share their stories, becoming friends with them, and then sharing those stories in my own classroom and publications is more than I ever imagined. I knew at an early age I wanted to study history. I stumbled into the history of sports in undergrad, but never knew any of this was possible.

These stories mean so much to me, not only because they’re dreams come true, but also because this journey has and continues to be incredibly hard. Writing is tough work. Teaching is at times exhausting. Together, they sometimes seem impossible. I have a lot of moments of self-doubt. There are days where it is damn hard to keep going. It is during these times, when I’m struggling to push through the distractions, that I reflect on all of these personal moments. They remind me that I can keep going. That I’ve been successful. That I’ve been put in this place for a reason.  One of the freakiest reminders is the progression of area codes from institution to institution. I completed my BA and MLA in 785, my MA in 775, and am doing my doctoral work in 765. It’s silly, I know. It’s probably meaningless, but it sure feels like I sign. It helps me know that I am where I supposed to be and doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It hints that maybe this plan isn’t all mine. After all, I’m living a charmed life. I have already been given a lifetime of unreal opportunities. With a little more hard work, who knows what else will come my way.

One thought on “John Carlos and My Charmed Academic Life

  1. Pingback: Another Year in the Rearview Mirror | Andrew McGregor

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