During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations, and athletes like Olympian John Carlos that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

Olympian’s cameo caps DeKalb student’s Black History Month report

For Black History Month, Spanish immersion students in Barack Obama Elementary Magnet School of Technology were assigned reports on Afro-Latinos who had made an impact.

Jeremiah Green was assigned Olympic athlete John Carlos and decided to go for extra credit, bringing the legend to school for his presentation.

After his talk, students surrounded John Carlos to take a picture, and he invited them to raise their fists, emulating what he did in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, at Barack H. Obama Elementary Magnet School of Technology on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 in Atlanta. MIGUEL MARTINEZ for the AJC

Wednesday morning, after second and third grade students watched part of a documentary on Carlos in the school’s media room, Carlos emerged from a conference room and held court for more than a half-hour, talking to the students about his life and imparting words of wisdom he hoped would motivate them to keep learning and share lessons they learned with other children around them.

“The name of the game is to give them as much knowledge and instruction as we can,” Carlos said Wednesday morning before students assembled in the school’s media room for the presentation. “Any time I can come give some time, I do. When the dust settled and I leave, I realize I learned something, too.”

Second-grader Aniyah Usher listens to a famous athlete of the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, John Carlos, talk at Barack H. Obama Elementary Magnet School of Technology on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, in Atlanta. (Photo: MIGUEL MARTINEZ for the AJC)
Photo: MIGUEL MARTINEZ for AJC

Carlos, along with fellow U.S. sprinter Tommie Smith, raised a fist during the 200-meter dash medal presentation at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City as a sign of protest over conditions in the United States. At the time, the country was in the middle of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy were both assassinated before the Games, and protesting and riots were taking place across the country. Peter Norman, the Australian runner who won the silver medal, did not raise a fist, but wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.

For their protest, Carlos and Smith were banished from the Games, their medals stripped.

“Why do you go to school, man?” Carlos asked a student sitting a few feet from him.

“So I can learn,” the student replied.

“So you can learn, right? A lot of guys your age don’t really realize why you’re going to school. I can think back in time when I was about you guys’ age, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘What am I here for? Who am I? What am I supposed to do?’ And then something jumped into my mind and said, “Why do I go to school?’”

Before John Carlos began his presentation, he shared the spotlight with second-grade student Jeremiah Green, 8, who made a presentation about Carlos’s story at Barack H. Obama Elementary Magnet School of Technology on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 in Atlanta. Jeremiah’s grandfather grew up with John Carlos in Harlem, N.Y. (Photo: MIGUEL MARTINEZ for the AJC)
Photo: MIGUEL MARTINEZ for AJC

The Spanish immersion program was added as a way to expand student learning, Principal Angela Thomas-Bethea said. The program at Obama is one of few in its area of the district, put in place by Rhonda Wells and former Superintendent Steve Green. Thomas-Bethea said students in the program’s two kindergarten classrooms are performing better on assessments then those in traditional kindergarten classrooms, and the number of interested students also has risen, with about 300 applicants for the 50 eligible positions.

“It caught on like wildfire,’ she said. “Some parents thought (dual-language immersion) would take away from the normal English learning, and that foundation piece would be compromised. The interest we’re seeing speaks volumes about the program.”

Wells said she pushed for the program because it offers a serious advantage to students growing up in a world getting more and more diverse.

“Language and dual language immersion should be available to all students,” Wells said.

John Carlos answers students’ questions at Barack H. Obama Elementary Magnet School of Technology on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020 in Atlanta. (Photo: MIGUEL MARTINEZ for the AJC)
Photo: MIGUEL MARTINEZ for AJC

Carlos said he and Jeremiah, who did the report on him, are practically family. Carlos grew up with Jeremiah’s grandfather in New York. The two men reconnected about six years ago after some social media intervention.

In the media room, Carlos told the students his sacrifices as well as those from others during the civil rights movement were made with the future in mind, with no fear of the repercussions. Last year, more than 50 years since he and Tommie Smith were sent home from the Mexico City Olympic Games, the men were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame for their “character, conduct and off-field activities.”

He preached the importance of what has become his personal motto — each one, teach one — and that, with a little work, everything the students want is within reach.

“Reach for the stars. Reach for the sky,” he said, pushing his right fist above his head.

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