Athletes use their platform to fight for social change

Lawyers' Committee
4 min readJun 3, 2019
Jemele Hill, John Carlos and Damion Thomas speak at the inaugural Athletes and Activism event last week.

Standing on the victory podium with his fist defiantly held in the air in the Black Power salute, African-American sprinter John Carlos knew his action would spark outrage around the world.

But as an athlete who just won a bronze medal in track and field at the 1968 Olympic games, Carlos recognized that his fame could leverage his statement — a message at the center of racial, political and social conflict — to a greater platform than the ordinary citizen.

As an African American man growing up in the 1950s, Carlos was told early on that he would never be able to compete at the Olympic level. Instead, he’s fought back, devoting his life to advocating for people of color.

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) stand in protest at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

“While they can take my life away, they can’t take away a statement made on the victory stand,” Carlos said. “But we can’t just put our fists in the air, we all need to take a stand to rid the ills of society.”

Carlos shared his story at the inaugural Athletes + Activism event hosted by the Atlantic and the Washington Mystics last Thursday at the new Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington. The event, moderated by Atlantic staff writer Jemele Hill, included a diverse panel of athlete-activists speaking on the intersection between athletics and social change.

Discussions ranged from the lawsuit filed by the Women’s national soccer team for equal pay, the importance of Title IX in sports, mental health among athletes, how to serve as an ally for LGBTQ+ athletes and how to advocate for your rights as both a player and an activist.

Damion Thomas, the curator of sports at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened the first panel with a conversation about the historical importance held by athletes throughout the last century. Sports, he said, provides a way for people to fight back, even when told they can’t.

“Athletes don’t tend to lead social revolutions, they respond to them,” Thomas said. “It becomes a natural conversation, the athletes become the voice for the voiceless.”

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