From Harriet Tubman to John Carlos and Colin Kaepernick: Are Things Better?

By Pete Simon

On October 16, 1968—50 years ago—I entered the gates of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, an hour’s train ride north of Chicago. It would become a gut-wrenching time with endless belittlement, tedious routines, and unreachable deadlines.

Pete Simon is a writer living in Colorado. Learn more about Pete…

Outside of this military asylum, our cities were burning. Back in August, Chicago police had gone on a rampage against protesters in Lincoln Park and adjacent streets during the Democratic National Convention, as many of us questioned the Vietnam War. National Guard troops still patrolled the streets of some cities, including my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the same day, I started basic training, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in defiance on the medal stand at the Olympics in Mexico City; a daring action which had them banned from the games.

When I watched what they did as I sat in front of a TV in a base lounge, I was shocked, but not surprised.  I understood why they did it; the evidence of injustice was everywhere. Now, looking back this last half-century, I realize what those two men did that day lives on through the actions of people like Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who kneel during the National Anthem to protest injustice.  From day one, I have supported such displays of protest, even while being in the belly of the beast at a military training base.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos: Injustice everywhere.

Scared to death: As soon as recruits around me saw the footage of Smith and Carlos with their fists raised to the heavens, the screaming for their heads commenced. I have never attended a lynch mob, but the unbridled racist profanity and screaming at a fever pitch was one you could associate with a lynching. I was scared to death because I stood-out in silence. I was worried that Smith and Carlos would be lynched by the likes of people surrounding me, who earlier in the day swore to defend the constitution of the United States. And I also worried about the backlash the action by Smith and Carlos would cause; a backlash that included the election of Richard Nixon three weeks later.

I had no idea that John Carlos would go on to earn a doctorate degree and continue to speak out against injustice. A lot of what he was protesting against were things I would later witness aboard ship: racism and homophobia displayed by too many, directed toward people in the U.S. and ports that I visited across Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Arabian Peninsula.

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October 16, 1968, the day I first put on the uniform, was the day I became very conflicted, a feeling that only became more intense after boot camp. What John Carlos and Tommie Smith did for me on October 16 was provide a healthy dose of inspiration to cope in a lion’s den of ignorance and cruelty. My sense of self-worth, clarity, and justice was never stronger.

The U.S.S. Forrest D. Royal DD872, the ship where the author’s worldview changed.

A year later, as the Amazing Mets somehow defeated the unstoppable Orioles, winning the World Series, the ship on which I was stationed, the U.S.S. Forrest D. Royal DD872, prepared to set sail for Africa and the Indian Ocean theater on what was deemed a “goodwill cruise.” Those six months from November until mid-May would change the way I view world politics (from East versus West, to Northern Hemisphere versus Southern), and the role played by our government in “hot spots” of the cold war in Africa. Such places escaped the headlines back home and (most tragically) were ignored by our anti-war movement.

On our ship’s second stop, Luanda, Angola, it became clear to me that we were not there to pay a social call. We were sharing combat surveillance information with top brass of the Portuguese military who came aboard our ship less than an hour after we docked for an extended briefing with our captain and senior officers. Our ship was equipped with sophisticated radio listening equipment that could receive radio transmissions across the interior of countries, including Angola where liberation groups were based.

The docking of our ship included an ominous display of the Portuguese military presence on the pier, with red-bereted commandos standing at parade rest in front of their machine gun-mounted jeeps. The city was surrounded with barbed wire to keep out MPLA freedom fighters. For the great majority of our crew, it was a wake-up call to what was going on between us and a NATO ally at a time when all British and French colonies in Africa had been granted independence.

{Learn more about the times of strife in Portugal and Angola’s history together.}

The other shock to my system from this particular “goodwill cruise” was the barbaric racist behavior displayed by several of my shipmates toward people of color in the ports of call. They would get rip-roaring drunk on liberty, then seek-out a victim or two and return to the ship with their inebriated stories of conquest–certainly the antithesis of goodwill. Thankfully, most of the crew did not partake in this behavior.  When they went on liberty they handled their alcohol like adults, then went on scenic walks, museums, local marketplaces, etc. My immediate petty officer supervisor, whom I will call Wayne, referred to such people as “faggots” because they didn’t wind up in a back room at a bar with a prostitute.

A bad quip: When we stopped in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, there were Arab men standing on the dock holding hands (an Arabic custom unrelated to sexual preference). Wayne’s first comment was predictable. Pointing to the men on the dock, he declared, “Some of the guys on ship should have a good time here,” a quip that brought a few laughs. For this kind of juvenile talk to come from a “leader of men” was not surprising, but it was sad, along with his description of a part of our onboard living space where African-American sailors resided, that Wayne called “The Congo.”

Has anything changed over the last 50 years? Maybe things are getting better? The NFL players challenged me on that question. Some players have taken to riding with police officers on patrol and become involved in police-community work in African-American communities. At least dialogue has started in some places.

Has anything changed over the last half-century? Are things better? I’m optimistic, especially when I view such thoughts as the following. On Oct. 15, the day before the 50th anniversary of John Carlos and the others raising their fists in Mexico City, The Nation published an extensive interview with Carlos. He said:

John Carlos today: “I know God is there and he used me as a vessel to try and wake people up.”

“I just did a talk in Topeka, Kansas. That’s a red state. I had 2,000 people rush to be in the audience to hear me speak. Out of the 2,000, I would say 700 or 800 of them must’ve been high-school students, the majority white. I was impressed that those parents in the red state allowed their kids to hear my speech. So it makes me realize that what I’ve been saying over the years has started to resonate with people, regardless of what their ethnic background is.”

Maybe we still have time. The November 2018 election results from Kansas produced several pleasant surprises for many of us.  Was John Carlos tapping into some of that positive energy? Maybe all of the hatred I witnessed by my fellow recruits and shipmates fifty years ago is being rectified by a younger generation.  Maybe enough of them will continue to vote so we can have leaders who don’t urge whipped-into-a-frenzy people at political rallies to do bodily harm on someone for being a reporter, or for just exercising their (free speech) rights as an American. Maybe.  Just maybe we can sail through calm waters again, or at least more productive ones.  On this, the year of the 50th anniversary of my October 16, I think it’s about time.  You?

The Creator: In the same article in The Nation, John Carlos noted that he was being used by “The Creator” as a vessel for good. He went on: “I thought that was amazing in the sense that whoever the creator of this planet is put me in that situation. I don’t know what God’s name is, but I know God is there and he used me as a vessel to try and wake people up. And I felt extraordinarily proud and pleased. I know we put the shock treatment on people and shocked them enough that they will start to spin their wheels and have some sort of reckoning in their minds. They’ll have to start to think about, ‘Why would this individual step up and do what he’s doing in life?’”

As someone who attended Methodist Sunday school and church in the city of Wilmington while growing-up, sang Methodist hymns and old spirituals in the youth choir, and has listened to jazz, blues and spirituals all of my life, John Carlos’ words about “The Creator” ring true.  I find them refreshing in this day when most people associate any reference to a higher power for inspiration as coming only from the right side of the political spectrum. It has been this way since the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination when the uptick in TV evangelists started.

Harriet Tubman didn’t let injustice stop her.

Are the words of John Carlos here a call, an indication that the world is about to receive a new, more universal kind of calling, all over again? Is it the same type of calling that kept Harriet Tubman going back more than one hundred times to slave territory to bring more and more enslaved people to Pennsylvania?

In Wilmington—one of the last stops going northward on the Underground Railroad—there is a statue of Harriet in Tubman-Garrett Park. The statue and Tubman’s story remind me that with all that I have been through in this life, all that I have witnessed overseas and experienced everywhere, my life is only one tiny piece of the human experience through time.

Colin Kaepernick exercising his rights as an American.

If I had to pick just one day in my life, a day when so much hit me squarely between the eyes, when so much challenged me with all the yelling and screaming of orders around me, and when I saw so much courage displayed by two African-American men who by raising their fists could have lost everything for something they believed in so strongly, all of this was wrapped into just one day: October 16, 1968; a day that will stay with me forever.