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.