Saturday, August 23, 2008

A 40-year-old salute

Forty years ago at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, two medalists from the United States used their moment on the awards podium to make a statement about being black in America at the time. They each raised one fist into the air in the black power salute originated by the Black Panther Party, and the country gasped.

Politically-charged actions sometimes speak for themselves. They also are often misunderstood, misread, misjudged, mistaken for something they weren't intended by the doers. And it's interesting what happens when time is added into the mix of historical fact and memory.

I, for one, am not offended when events that occurred in my lifetime are interpreted by those not yet born at the time or too young to remember first-hand. But when
ESPN gave Tommie Smith and John Carlos (the Olympians who gave the black power salute in Mexico City) the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in July 2008, Jonah Goldberg of the Los Angeles Times criticized the decision in the July 29, 2008 edition of the newspaper, in part because a sportscaster at ESPN recounted his memories of the event even though he was only three years old when the 1968 Summer Olympics were held. Where that is a stretch, if the guy grew up in a household where this event was reviled or revered it makes sense to me that he would have an historical memory of it.

It was reviled, obviously still is today by some or many. The sub-headline of the 2008 LA Times article reads: ESPN
ignored the violent extremism behind the black power salute given by two medalists at the Mexico City Games. In his article, journalist Goldberg asks, In today's culture, is it even worth trying to remind people that the black power salute was, for those who brandished it most seriously, a symbol of violence -- rhetorical, political and literal -- against the United States?

But it was also revered. At Music and Culture, blog author Kevin shared another LA Times article in a post dated October 22, 2006. I'd have preferred to give a link to the original article itself, but it's no longer available online. Good thing that Kevin printed it in his blog in 2006. Therefore, because I think the article describes an amazing background behind the medalists' particular black power salutes on the award podium in 1968, and because it tells the story of the third man on the podium that day, I'm linking to Kevin's post just above. It includes the entire LA Times article written by J.A. Adande, that begins:
Have you ever watched a movie for the 10th time and noticed something that you've never seen before? Did you wonder how you possibly could have missed it?

That's the way I felt when I learned that John Carlos and Tommie Smith flew to Australia to serve as pallbearers in the funeral of Peter Norman, the third man on the medal stand with them in that iconic photo of their black-gloved protest at the 1968 Olympics.

I'd stared at that photograph until its image was burned onto my retinas and I never registered Norman. I'd read every article I came across about Smith and Carlos, including an exceptional two-part Sports Illustrated series by Kenny Moore in 1991, and I didn't have a clue about the Australian sprinter who won the silver medal in that 200-meter race.

"Then you don't really know about the story," Carlos said. . .

So, where does the first photo at the top of this post fit with the tumultuous history behind the photo of the Olympians? It was taken by our mother of my sister Nel on the left and me on the right at Galena Creek, Nevada, in spring 1969, nearly a year after the 1968 Summer Olympics. Repeating Goldberg's question in his LA Times article might help me explain. Here it is again, but this time the emphasis in red is mine: In today's culture, is it even worth trying to remind people that the black power salute was, for those who brandished it most seriously, a symbol of violence -- rhetorical, political and literal -- against the United States?

The scene behind our photo was one of extreme turmoil, as our step-father, the man who had raised us since we were 3 and 5, after months of becoming increasingly reclusive and combative finally left our mother. Divorce proceedings were on the horizon and times were tough. I was about to graduate from high school and get my first summer job that would have to pay enough to fund my first semester at the University of Nevada. Our mother took a second job and struggled to keep our house and property in the country outside Reno. She often repeated the story of making a thin soup from a dog bone she'd bought at the butcher, and that my sister and I had complimented the soup, told her it was yummy, and how she cried herself to sleep that night.

The three of us were in our own worlds together, living in a kind of zombie state. The day this picture was taken our mother thought a drive up the Mount Rose Highway to see some scenery would do us good. We turned off on the dirt road leading to Galena Creek, an area now developed but then completely wild. It was chilly up there along the creek and the three of us took a short walk, my mother smoked cigarettes, we talked and then didn't talk. Our mother asked us to stand by the running water for a picture, the only shot taken that day since it wasn't a time in our lives we necessarily felt like preserving on film. Do you smile phoney smiles at such a time? I didn't think I could do that. So I whispered to Nel, "Let's make the black power salute when she says 'ready'" and that's what we did. Mama said, "Oh, girls" with a touch of exasperation in her voice, but we kept the pose, strengthened our stances, tightened our fists. She snapped the picture. It was a moment of such solidarity between my sister and I, one that showed our mother we were finished being victims, we were ready to fight for the sun to come out in our lives again. I see it as a turning point for all three of us.

Now I am not quite sure what Goldberg meant when he wrote about "those who brandished it (the black power salute) most seriously," but I think "most vehemently" may have been better wording. Because my sister and I couldn't have been more serious when we used the salute that day in the woods, but our action had nothing to do with violence --
rhetorical, political and literal -- against the United States, or against any state or state of mind. It had nothing to do with the black power movement either, of course. Except it did.


Citizen of Earth said...

I would find such commentary laughable if it were not such a painful time for me to remember.

I was not three in 1968, I was 11
And I remember this photo and the controversy surrounding it.
Yes it was perhaps an inappropriate gesture, in the spirit of the Olympics
But it was hardly surprising.

With all due respect to Mr. Goldberg I have to say that he is certainly proving himself to be a shortsighted fool, if not a complete idiot.

Does he choose to forget the rest of the images from 1968???
I for one cannot.
They are burned into my memory.

I remember seeing fire hoses used as crowd control
And police dogs sent in to rend and tear flesh
I remember three assassinations, aimed at stemming the tide of the civil rights movement

I remember stories of murder in Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana
Bombing buses and setting churches ablaze

Let us look at the violence promoted by the Black Panthers, and try to put that into context with the violence perpetrated against the civil rights movement.

Now lets look at that photo again and reflect on the humanity of those young athletes on the podium.

Am I offended?
Yes extremely
But NOT by the actions of these athletes

But rather by a nation, shocked by this one moment of protest,
While the confederate flag was still proudly flying over state houses in our southern capitols.

Jennifer said...

My brain is reeling -- first, for the story of 1968 black power salute, including the little-known back story, then for the tie-in to your life at the time (with photo documentation!), and finally for the comment by citizen of earth.

This was a great, thought-provoking post and citizen of earth is right on.

Thank you both.

distracted by shiny objects said...

Fascinating post. I remember that photo and the hoopla surrounding it clearly, but had not heard the entire story of Mr. Norman.
I love the line,"It's a lesson in how a single moment of solidarity can lead to a lifetime bond. It's an inspiring example of how people from different races and different countries can find unity in what is right."
Some people call those "moments of grace."

YogaforCynics said...

I can only imagine what it would be like to be an African American representing the United States in 1968...the swirling maelstrom of emotions one would have to feel...much like the swirling maelstrom of your own experience at that time...symbolic gestures are never simple...much as the Jonah Golbergs of this world would like it to be otherwise....

Beautiful post.

Lydia said...

You Four Commenters below ROCK!

Citizen of Earth,
Do you realize how much your words added to my post? In her comments below Distracted by Shiny Objects repeats a quote from the article, and this part struck me particularly in relation to all the comments made here: "It's a lesson in how a single moment of solidarity can lead to a lifetime bond.," i.e., our shared memory - all of us who remember that year - does provide that moment of solidarity that bonds even strangers...(see my comments to Jennifer)

Thank you for sharing in the solidarity expressed in everyone's comments here. Around here most towns bestow an annual "First Citizen Award" to worthy recipients and I think that Citizen of Earth should have the First Citizen Award at my blog!

Distracted by Shiny Objects,
Ah, yes, you're right. Moments of grace that still offer up that grace, if only ...

Yoga for Cynics,
Your words touched me, especially with the 2008 Summer Olympics closing and the Democratic convention beginning this week. Twenty years have brought us far... to a 21st Century kind of "swirling maelstrom"? - or to "moments of grace"?

Wayfaring Wanderer said...

I had no prior knowledge of this event.....I think I much rather hear it for the first time in relation to your own tale......thanks for sharing.

Naomi said...

Courageous black athletes and determined young girls all speaking truth to power. Unexpected and thrilling parallel stories.

Lydia said...

I appreciate your interesting reaction to the piece!

You express so much in so few words; thanks much for your impressions.

Honour said...

Lydia, what a touching, powerful and insightful post. Thank you - thank you for letting me learn more about that time in history (I had seen some coverage on the news but could never catch a clip that actually explained the stories) ... and to see it intersect with your life in such a personal powerful way.

Thank you for sharing.

Lydia said...

You are most welcome! I so enjoy coming across fleshed-out information about things I gained from learning. I barely remember the third man, and, until working on this post, had never known the story of his life/death/remembrance by the others. I'm going to order Tom Brokaw's documentary DVD "1968" and accompanying book "Boom!: Voices of the Sixties Personal Reflections on the 60s and Today" when I can get them on sale...

Di Mackey said...

I loved this ... thanks for sharing the story and telling this New Zealander about something she knew nothing about.

Lydia said...

Thanks so much, Di. It's been a beautiful thing stirring up this old story. And that photo: for the ages...

Fireblossom said...

Grr! Blogger gave me the "service unavailable" finger when I just tried to comment, so here I go again...

Thank you so much for giving me the link to this post, Lydia. Reading about your family brought tears to my eyes. I love that you and your sister raised your fists like that. It speaks volumes.

Thanks again for sharing this with me.

Lydia said...

Fireblossom~ Thank you so much for your comment after reading this long post. It was one that I found I could not condense! (Thanks, too, for forging ahead after not being able to comment the first time!)

Richard said...

Lydia - a very interesting and thoughtful post. The account of your connection with the salute is moving. Thank you for posting in what is a fascinating blog. We are, as you say, stardust, and we make the most of it!

Oh, I was nearly 1 year old during the 1968 Olympics.

Richard, London

naomi dagen bloom said...

Impressed by the feeling as well as the creativity of how you put this all together, Lydia. For a person very close to the issues of that time and as they continue in these times, I salute you in return.

More power to the people!

Lydia said...

Richard~ You certainly were too young to remember it, but you grew up to still care about the history of it and to leave such kind comments to me. Thank you. Happy New Year1

naomi dogen bloom~ I would love to see an old home movie of you back then, full of the awareness and passion that inform your life to this day. It is I who salutes you!



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