By Hermene Hartman
Dr. Conrad Worrill is a retired educator. He is the former Director and professor of the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois. He is a former track and football star at Hyde Park High School. Today he is the convenor of Friends of Track and Field. Dr. Worrill is hosting a tribute to the historic John Carlos and we chatted with him about the 50-year anniversary celebration.
N’DIGO: Sports figures standing for causes is not new. Fifty years ago John Carlos along with Tommy Smith gave the Black power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. What was the significance of their actions?
WORRILL: With their actions, John Carlos and Tommy Smith join- ed the ranks of Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, Craig Hodges, Jackie Robinson, and a host of other activist athletes. These Black athletics used their celebrity and status to bring international attention to America’s pervasive racism and white supremacy placing their hard-won privileges at risk to make visible the unacceptable conditions of less privileged Black people in America and throughout the world.
N’DIGO: Was Carlos penalized for his actions?
WORRILL: Carlos was widely scorned by the elite segments of the sports world that put up roadblocks that prevented him from being gainfully employed and blocked his ability to take care of his family. He was severely “whitelisted” and identified as a troublemaker who should not be touched.
N’DIGO: Track and field at one time was a very important sport. Is it still an important sport today?
WORRILL: The corporate intrusion into sports in America caused a significant decline in young people wanting to participate in track and field. Much of the corporate money was geared toward basketball, football, and baseball. As a result, the basketball phenomenon emerged as a year-round activity in urban areas and the inner city in the United States. Track and field took a big setback and the participation by African Americans began to dwindle in favor of basketball. It is our belief that track and field is still a very important sport as evidenced by its popularity in other parts of the world, such as Europe, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Many young people today are unaware that track and field can be a viable and lucrative endeavor.
N’DIGO: You are celebrating John Carlos in Chicago on October 20th at the Parkway Ballroom, why?
WORRILL: We **are celebrating John Carlos as an activist athlete whose actions follow in the tradition of activist athletes. He has continued to live a life as an activist participating in various movements and human rights causes worldwide. We chose the Parkway Ballroom as the venue for this celebration because of its historical nature of hosting important events in the African American community.
N’DIGO: Natalie Moore of WBEZ will conduct the interview with John Carlos at the Parkway Ballroom celebration. Why was a non-sportscaster selected to conduct the interview?
WORRILL: We want to break away from having activist athletes interviewed by sportscasters when their activism in greater than just sports. We selected Natalie Moore who is a journalist that has covered social justice and human rights issues throughout her career. We wanted to take this interview out of the sports arena and place the interview into the larger social justice and human rights arena.
N’DIGO: What does it really mean when a top sports figure breaks their career with protests?
WORRILL: It means that they have entered into the rich tradition of activist athletes whose actions have helped break down the walls of discrimination, racism, and white supremacy and by doing so has helped to open doors.
N’DIGO: What is John Carlos’ legacy?
WORRILL: John Carlos’ legacy can be summed up in his own words when he states, “How can you ask someone to live in the world and not have something to say about injustice?” Carlos took a stand by fighting against injustice and giving it worldwide attention.
N’DIGO: What are your thoughts about Colin Kaepernick taking a knee today?
Following the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Brand, and Eric Garner the racist infrastructure of America’s justice system is blatantly apparent. Since Kaepernick first took a knee the names of those who have been murdered within this system have increased. It is in this climate that Colin Kaepernick has taken a knee and continues to work to eliminate discrimination, racism, and white supremacy. He is to be commended for his selfless actions. This is why the theme we selected for our October event is “Raise a Fist and Take a Knee.”
WORRILL: For over 35 years we have been advocating, starting with the Harold Washington administration, for the building of a state of the art indoor track and field facility in Chicago. In 2007, my friend and well-known businessman Elzie Higgin-
bottom (who I ran track against in high school) and I, with many others, co-founded a not-for-profit group “The Friends of Track and Field.” The group’s purpose is to revitalize track and field in the City of Chicago. In Chicago, during the indoor season, student-athletes still run and practice in the hallways. Through our advocacy and partnership with After School Matters, a recent groundbreaking took place at 103rd and Gately Park. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Michelle Harris, Park District Superintendent Mike Kelly, and others along with the Friends of Track and Field announced the building of a $55 million state of the art indoor track facility. We see this as a major accomplishment in our work.
N’DIGO: What do you hope to accomplish at the John Carlos event at the Parkway Ballroom on October 20th?
WORRILL: We want to provide John Carlos an opportunity to once again share his story in his own words. He will be celebrated for the actions he took as an Olympic athlete to help raise awareness of the pervasive injustices of white supremacy by simply raising his fist on the medal stand, an action that shook up the world. We want the community to affirm his great contributions to sports activism.
N’DIGO: What has happened in the world of sports from Carlos raising his fist to Kaepernick taking a knee?
WORRILL: Much has happened but specifically the actions of Curt Flood in baseball, Chet Walker and Oscar Robertson in basketball, and other NBA stars challenging the employment system in professional sports that has led to the concept of free agency. This gave professional athletes more power in negotiating their employment and who they chose to play for taking away the power from the owners who ran professional sports like a plantation.
The increased salaries of professional athletes have produced more activist athletes such as LeBron James. LeBron has used his considerable wealth to further causes and projects in the African American community. Finally, in the economic arena more African American athletes are seeking ownership of professional sports teams such as Mich- ael Jordan, who is the owner of the Charlotte Hornets.
One final point is my thanks and appreciation to Eileen Rhodes, a member of the Friends of Track and Field and president of the East Lake Management Association, for her assistance in organizing the October 20 John Carlos Celebration.
Was making the connection between the similarities of pursuing a career and pursuing love an easy one for you to make?
Since I am both a marriage/couple’s counselor and senior career coach, I made this correlation almost immediately. At one point I was doing both at the same time on the same day. I would finish counseling someone on his or her relationship, then leave and coach someone about his or her career.
There were many times where my advice would overlap, and be relevant to both sets of clients. I would find myself talking to someone about their relationship and saying things like, “How do you feel when your manager micromanages you at work?
Hermene Hartman is president and CEO of Chicago-based Hartman Publishing Group, which publishes the N’DIGO Living The Urbane Lifestyle Magapaper. The article “John Carlos fist changes Olympics forever” was first published in N’DIGO online on October 1, 2018.