Carlos himself once explained it to a friend. "You know," he said, "with all the stuff that's going on in the world, with babies dying and being crippled and the whole war going on, if I walked around and was intense about everything, I just couldn't take it. This is my escape—clowning around. It makes it a lot easier to get through."
As a lot of blacks would agree, that is one of the very few ways to "get through" a Harlem boyhood. ("If you were weak," Carlos says of growing up in Harlem, "you ended up a hood. You ended up killing people.") Then there was Manhattan Vocational and Technical High School, where Carlos learned machine and metal trades—but not how to read worth a damn. There was no track, certainly no thought of college, and when he graduated in 1965 he started to work and, on the side, to run for the New York Pioneer Club. He was brought to the attention of Delmer Brown, the track coach at East Texas State, who obtained special permission to get Carlos enrolled and in the fall of 1966 had himself a top sprinter.
According to Carlos it all happened under false pretenses. He says he was told there was no racism in Commerce, Texas, that blacks had decent housing, that he would have tutors, that his rent and medical bills would be paid and that he would get a monthly scholarship check to cover his family's expenses. It turned out quite differently. There were parents who would not let their children play with Carlos' daughter because she was black. He was refused service in a bar. "They called me 'boy,' " he recalls. "I said my name isn't 'boy.' Here's my name, here in the papers." There were no tutors and the housing was poor. And the coaches were still used to calling black athletes "nigger." "In Harlem I wasn't used to doing what people told me to do," says Carlos, "so I didn't make it in Texas."
People in Texas say it wasn't the way Carlos tells it. The man Kim Carlos worked for as a secretary, journalism professor W. J. Bell, says, "John was sinned against in that manual training school. He was never required to learn to read. When he got here we put him in a reading clinic and initially he read only at a first-grade level. After he got to the fifth-grade level he quit. When he left here he was probably failing every course."
Delmer Brown remembers Carlos with much less charity. "After some of his early successes in meets he became obnoxious," Brown says. "Sometimes I had to threaten him to make him work, as I would any athlete—disciplinary threats, not physical threats. He was treated exactly like everyone else, but he let it be known to the team and to me that he wanted special favors." Then, according to Brown, came charges of racism and resentment on the team and finally a meeting of the black trackmen with Athletic Director Jesse Hawthorne. Carlos allegedly did much of the talking, but, according to an athlete who was there, another member of the team finally stood up and said, "The rest of us have decided that nobody is being mistreated and only John is unhappy. We all want to stay, but under the circumstances, if he's not happy then he ought to leave."
Carlos left East Texas State in 1967, enrolling last year at San Jose at the urging of Harry Edwards, who led the proposed Olympic boycott. "Look, man," Edwards told Carlos, "we have something going on at San Jose and you can be sure an athlete is not going to be messed on." Carlos expressed only one wish: he wouldn't have to become involved in the demonstrations.
That Carlos changed and became militantly involved was no surprise. "It was the atmosphere he walked into," recalls Art Simburg, a former San Jose student who is the American representative for Puma track shoes. "The whole place was alive politically. He now had contact with many people who were activists. And as people began to attack [Lee] Evans and Smith, as they started to get hate letters, Carlos realized this was not a personal attack but an attack on black people. To imply any of them were led—Smith, Evans or Carlos—would be an insult. They had minds of their own. And all of them were free."
As a graduate of Harlem, Carlos knew more about prejudice than either Smith or Evans, who both grew up in California grape fields. "I like all kinds of people," Carlos says. "White. Black. Yellow. Red. I don't care. Any kind of people, so long as they're fair to me. But sometimes it just doesn't seem to work."
It worked one afternoon in the office of San Jose Sports Information Director Larry Close. A group of students from a local high school wanted to talk with someone on the black athlete situation. Carlos, who happened to be in the office, volunteered. "What would you like to know?" he asked.
"They were there with their tape recorders," Close recalls, "and when they started asking intelligent questions, John gave intelligent answers. 'They only teach the one side, they don't teach the other side,' the kids said. 'How do we get it changed?' Carlos answered, 'You have to see your parents and have them go to the schoolteacher to have it changed.'