sensational images in the media, especially as social media has led to the instantaneous reproduction of memes in popular culture. Even before social media and even the Internet, sensational images could spread relatively rapidly via film and television as well as print media such as daily newspapers or weekly and monthly magazines. These images convey various meanings and mean different things for different audiences. A perfect example of how one image can convey different meanings and semantics to different audience groups is the 1968 image taken of the Olympian athletes from the United States using the Black Power “salute.” The original image by John Dominis has left an indelible mark on the American public and has even caused an international sensation. It came in the era of Civil Rights and at the time when celebrity black athletes were using their fame to spread awareness about racism and unfair treatment in their home country, This is where the media, social justice, and the law intersect. In this image, Tommie Smith and John Carlos hold up their hands high in the shape of the fist as they wear black gloves. This symbolic gesture represents the central icon of the Black Power movement’s flag, signifying unity among people of color and the power they can share and wield when working together.
Moreover, the Dominis photograph clearly chose the men wearing black socks and no shoes. Their choice of clothing represents the lack of support given to black athletes versus their white counterparts, and represents the huge disparities between white and black in America even beyond the world of sports. At the press conference following the medal ceremony, Smith admitted that not wearing shoes symbolized “black poverty in racist America,” (“1968: Black Athletes Make Silent Protest”). In every arena of public life in America, it is possible to see such instances of inequality such as in public schools and the differential resources provided to predominantly black versus white institutions. When the photograph was taken, the Civil Rights era was at its peak, ending decades of legalized segregation but unfortunately not ending centuries of overt, systematic, and institutionalized racism. This image remains powerful in the 21st century because Americans have failed to learn the lessons of the past. Current images similar to the Black Power “salute” at the 1968 Olympics include those that have to do with the “Black Lives Matter” movement that protests unfair treatment by the police.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos also bow their heads in a moment of silence while on the podium, another physical gesture captured by the photographer in this iconic image. The gesture of bowing the heads signals the disillusionment and shame felt towards a nation that professes to be about liberty and justice, about equality and freedom. The athletes protest hypocrisy and challenge Americans to understand their cause rather than fear Black Power. A sensational image like this one not only makes people impressed by its visual or aesthetic imagery, but also influences the ways people think about the world, their values, biases, and worldview. The Black Power salute photograph from the 1968 Olympics proves the value of images is not inherent in what tools that photographers may have used or how fancy the composition or the lighting of the photo happened to be at the time. Rather, the true value of images may be in how those pictures touch the hearts and minds of the audience and inspire action or political change.
From the perspective of a photographer or any other artist or journalist, taking sensational images is not easy. It is not something that one can necessarily plan. In this case, the photographer likely did not know that these athletes were going to be posed in such a way, and the capture of the image was spontaneous and surprising. The public response to the image was in part due to the nature of surprise, because the gesture of accepting the award at the Olympics took place on an international stage where viewers from around the world were watching. In this case, the entire world was able to see that not all Americans are satisfied with their lives and needed to use their award to bring attention to a social cause. The photographers at the Olympics generally imagine themselves capturing pure victory and the face of a proud champion, not the image of athletes who are ashamed of the way their people have been treated.
Photographers have to use different colors and angles to catch the facial expressions or actions in their subjects. Every individual person has different approaches to portrait or people pictures, and unique insight into the photographic tools and techniques. This image was taken in black and white film, at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. John Dominis was an American documentary photographer and war photographer. Therefore, Dominis must have had already encountered political actions in his subjects. The subtlety of the political action embedded in this photograph is one of the reasons why it has become so famous. These two athletes have just won an award in the name of a nation that had enslaved their ancestors, and which sponsored segregation against them. Moreover, these two athletes had won the award in spite of these obstacles and had overcome those barriers to achievement. The Black Power salute underscores the magnitude of their accomplishments. The picture has been called “1968 Olympics Black Power Salute,” and ended up being one of Dominis’ most famous pictures. Not only that, the image will forever be a part of American history. It is a piece of documentary evidence, just as a presidential speech might be.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were Olympic sprinters. Smith earned the gold medal and Carlos the bronze. What the photograph cannot capture is the audio effects. As the image was being taken, the American national anthem would have been playing on the loudspeaker system in the stadium. The entire world was listening to the American national anthem while watching these two athletes perform a subtle subversive act: instead of placing their hands on their hearts in typical patriotic fashion, they bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists. The fists raised in the Black Power salute symbolize a direct statement against the laws, politics, and policies of racism in the United States. Moreover, their salute represents union and solidarity with their compatriots back home who daily experience the effects of overt and institutionalized racism.
Racism has been one of the defining features of the United States since before the founding of the nation, when the trans-Atlantic slave trade ensured that a black underclass would be created. The end of slavery required a Civil War, so entrenched was racism in the consciousness of Americans. Moreover, the official end of slavery did not mean the end of racism. For too long, Americans had believed that persons of color were inferior human beings. The Constitution of the United States had to be changed to allow blacks and women to vote, because these were groups of people deemed lesser than white males. Therefore, racial inequality has been a big problem in American society since its inception. Despite the substantial progress made to create a more egalitarian society, including the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s, issues of race, ethnicity and discrimination are still taking place today, and many problems can be found in areas like unequal treatment in law enforcement and a general denial that racism exists at all. Some of the most fundamental problems that minorities still face today in the United States deal primarily with finding equal opportunity in the workplace and in society in general. Because minorities are not able to find equal employment opportunities, even today, there are a number of subsidiary consequences including backlash against affirmative action, which exists precisely because many whites do not recognize that white privilege exists. Racism has led to a great divide along the lines of race and socio-economic class, which is linked to race in America.
The image of the Olympic athletes on the podium after winning their medals made a strong political statement akin to a political protest. By not performing the traditional gesture of placing the hand on their hearts and singing the anthem, these two athletes knew the kind of retaliation that they would likely experience from their expression. A fist raised in the air has long been associated with worker solidarity movements, linking race and class in America (Cushing). The fist raised was also a statement that Black men possess political power even when the dominant culture has systematically stripped that power, Black athletes possess power inherent in their physical prowess and winning spirit, but also in their ability to become role models for Black youth. These two men had just won a Gold and Bronze medal in the Olympics, yet there may have been many things that they could not do in their home country simply for the fact that they were black. Their parents had experienced even worse fates having been subjected to systematic racism like Jim Crow. Smith and Carlos proved they were athletically superior to their fellow competitors, yet ironically they were perceived as inferior on many levels at home based on their skin color.
The two athletes simply raised their fists and in so doing, they draw attention to a critical moment in American history. The act is self was rather simple — all they did was raise their fists. However, it had profound implications from the perspective of the society. Performing this gesture on an international stage and on television was important in that the United States had long presented a false image to the world. They appear in the image as completely “unafraid” of the repercussions of their actions and “expressing disillusionment with a nation that so often fell, and still falls, so short of its promise,” (Cosgrove 1). With their help, the world could see that there were cracks in the American veneer. Love speculates that each man raised a different fist for a different reason, with Carlos raising his left to represent black unity and Smith his right for the Black Power movement. However, Hartmann divulges the real meaning of the different arms being raised: the two athletes shared one pair of gloves. Immediately before the medal ceremony, Smith presented Carlos with the left and kept the right for himself (Hartmann). Whether out of necessity or out of a symbol of brotherhood, sharing the same pair of gloves is an integral part of the overall meaning of the image.
The repercussions of the simple act were disproportionately severe and reactive, essentially proving the exact thing the men were trying to say. Smith and Carlos were “vilified,” kicked off their own team, and received death threats (Cosgrove 1). They were also booed by “many in the crowd,” (“1968: Black athletes make silent protest”). After the anthem finished, there was a moment of stark silence, after which booing ensued and people even began to throw things onto the field and shout racial slurs including “Niggers go back to Africa!” and “I can’t believe this is how you niggers treat us after we let you run in our games!” (cited by Younge 1). Back home, the American media ran hateful headlines instead of supporting their star athletes. As Younge points out, Time magazine “showed the Olympic logo with the words Angrier, Nastier, Uglier, instead of Faster, Higher, Stronger,” while the Los Angeles Times “accused them of engaging in a ‘Nazi-like salute,’ in poorly chosen words given the fact that Hitler hated anyone who was not white. The only repercussion that did not happen to Smith and Carlos was the integrity of their medals — their medals were not taken away. They had won on more levels than one.
Even the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which would theoretically assume a more neutral stance or otherwise recognize the ill effects of racism in sport, condemned Smith and Carlos. A spokesperson for the IOC went so far as to say “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit,” (“1968: Black athletes make silent protest”). The first challenge to the notion of white supremacy at the Olympics came several decades later, when Jessie Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The timing of Owens’ win was as important then as it was for Carlos and Smith. When Owens won his medals, Germany had elected history’s most notorious racist, Hitler as the chancellor. The IOC had actually tried to send Jessie Owens to talk to Smith and Carlos to discourage them from using the podium for political purposes, but the effort failed. Carlos and Smith remained fearless. Carlos has been asked about why his arm is slightly bent in the picture, making it look like he was more hesitant than Smith in raising his hand in the gesture. It was not fear or trepidation, notes Carlos in retrospect, but rather, he said, “I wanted to make sure, in case someone rushed us, I could throw down a hammer punch,” (cited by Younge 1).
John Dominis also caught that both black athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, did not wear shoes when they were on the podium for their Gold and Bronze medals. Smith had told the media, “black socks with no shoes stood for black poverty in racist America,” (cited by Hartmannn). Their lack of shoes subverts the code of dress for celebrity athletes in order to draw attention to the lack of financial resources and support provided for black communities. Similarly, the athletes are critiquing the hypocrisy of a nation that would support their black athletes when they become superstars, but not when they are ordinary citizens. As Smith himself said that same day he won to the media, “If I win, I’m an American, not a black American.” In other words, if he had not won, he would not be valued as an American. Smith’s statement also hearkens to what W.E.B. DuBois discussed in his book The Souls of Black Folk, where the author discusses the problem of “double consciousness” in African-Americans. African-Americans like Smith are both Black and American, and sometimes the two parts of identity are difficult to reconcile.
Similarly, Smith also noted that in the locker room, his teammates considered him a “dirty negro” until he won (“1968: Black athletes make silent protest”). Although many in the crowd and in the United States might have decried Smith and Carlos, the athletes knew that “Black America understood,” as did their fellow Olympic medalist Peter Norman (“1968: Black athletes make silent protest”). Silver medalist Peter Norman, also captured in Dominis’s picture and a white Australian, stands in stark contrast to his fellow athletes. Yet Cosgrove points out that Norman also took a political stance on the podium in solidarity with Smith and Carlos, by donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge (Cosgrove 1). The Olympic Project for Human Rights was a movement that supported the boycott against the games, and which outwardly protested the use of underclass citizens like African-Americans as “performing animals” to be used and then discarded (“1968: Black athletes make silent protest”). The Olympic Project for Human Rights shows how international sports can become a vehicle for political protest, through the help of the media and journalists like Dominis. Apparently, Norman met with intense scorn at his simple act of solidarity, after returning to his home country of Australia (Griot, 2015). At the time, Australia had a system of apartheid itself, and had some of the same civil rights problems that the United States had. The Smith and Carlos gesture was one of universal solidarity and universal human rights. It raised awareness about the truth of racism and civil rights in “Western,” “advanced,” and “civilized” countries around the world.
The photograph captures some subtle differences in the ways Smith and Carlos comport themselves to draw attention to their cause. For example, Norman stands upright and faces forward. Norman smiles; Smith and Carlos do not. They could have savored the moment as personal victories in their careers. Instead, Smith and Carlos sacrifice personal glory for the gains of their community. They are dedicating their win to the millions of African-American men and women at home who struggle. Their win is a victory for people of color all over the world. Moreover, Smith and Carlos distance themselves from their nation by refusing to place their hand on their chest because they are pointing out that they are not going to be perceived as tools to promote American victories at the Olympics. Their victory needs to be recognized as the victory of equality over oppression. Interestingly, the athletes had considered boycotting the games, but in retrospect saw what political power a victory could provide for the Black Power movement (1968: Black athletes make silent protest”). Were it not for Dominis’ photograph, their statement might not have been made as rapidly or as visibly.
Carlos and Smith performed their action not arbitrarily or out of hate, but out of love for their country and community. They wanted their country to live up to its ideals, which is why they took a risk that would damage their careers and reputations, as well as their relationships with some of their fellow athletes who did not understand the plight of black Americans. Carlos and Smith wanted to point out the context in which they raised their fists: it was a context in which black children did not have access to the same training facilities as their white counterparts. After all, Carlos wanted to become a swimmer before he wanted to be a runner, but his father had to eventually tell his son that “the training facilities he needed were in private clubs for the white and the wealthy,” (Younge 1). Carlos’s father was pointing out how not only race but also socio-economic class determines opportunities for Americans, in spite of the country being dubbed the “land of opportunity.” Carlos claims that his skills in running were innate, and that he used to run from the police after redistributing food he would steal to give it to the poor in Harlem (Younge 1). Therefore, Carlos had always had a political and subversive streak in him, even before he became a celebrity athlete and Olympian. Carlos went on to be a school counselor and coach in California. Ironically but tellingly and importantly, he has a poster of the pledge of allegiance on the same walls as he houses pictures of prominent African-Americans like Malcolm X and Zora Neale Hurston.
The gesture captured in the famous image draws attention to global issues related to race, class, gender, and power. Class and race are inextricably linked, as can be seen in Carlos’s own experience as being both black and poor. Furthermore, the gesture came in the wake of the Martin Luther King assassination and friction within the Black Power movement itself. There were race riots in American cities occurring at rates of increased frequency. Political protest was a commonly used tool against encroaching tyranny and oppression. Although the mainstream establishment denounced Smith and Carlos, the world of oppressed people erupted in a wave of support for the athletes. As Younge points out, one Jewish athlete who was humiliated and “forced to compete” like an animal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics — the same Olympics in which Jessie Owens won — was one who spoke out in favor of the Black Power gesture (1). Even after his landmark victory of four medals in the 1936 Olympics, Jessie Owens found himself literally competing against animals — racing alongside horses because he had so much trouble finding viable work as an African-American (Younge 1). His celebrity status as an Olympian did not mask the fact that racism was alive in Jim Crow era America. Although the Civil Rights Act President Johnson signed had helped make some necessary changes, the vestiges of Jim Crow remained when Smith and Carlos raised their fists in salute.
Smith and Carlos challenged the prevailing “truth” that America was the land of opportunity and the land of “liberty and justice for all.” In fact, America had never been that way. Until the Civil War, slavery existed. Until the 1920s, women could not vote. Jim Crow persisted. There were numerous ways the United States had failed to live up to its promises. In 1968, when Sominis shot his famous photograph, the Vietnam War still persisted and political protests against it highlighted the failures in American foreign policy. America has still neglected to learn from the mistakes it made during that War. It is important to remember that Smith and Carlos were not just making a gesture of African-American solidarity and Black Power; they were doing so during the American national anthem. One of the reasons they were so harshly criticized was that it seemed like they were being patriotic, but the media spun the truth and distorted the gesture. The fist pumping was not a gesture of anti-Americanism at all but of one of the most primary of all American rights: the right to free speech. Carlos and Smith usurped the anthem of a nation that consistently let down people of color and especially African-Americans. This was a nation that interned Japanese-Americans during World War Two, as well. Protesting the anthem was the athletes’ way of calling out America on its limitations and crying out for a better nation.
Another “truth” the image conveys is related to the Black Power movement itself. The Black Power movement began in 1966, “in the wake of massive civil rights demonstrations and new civil rights laws,” but it was not the first time that phrase had been used (Hamilton and Ture 201). White racists in America feared “black power” in general, one of the reasons why abolition of slavery had been forestalled for so long, and even in the 1960s, feared what would happen if African-Americans enjoyed full legal, economic, and cultural parity. The Black Power movement was perceived as threatening, “more an aggravation of the problems,” and viewed as being “anti-white, defeatist,” and rejecting of integration (Hamilton and Ture 201). The Dominis image captures the ambivalence with which Americans, both black and white, viewed the Black Power movement in general. On the one hand, Smith and Carlos do seem to stand apart as two Black men next to the white Australian. A closer examination does, however, reveal the fact that the white Australian asked to wear the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to show solidarity with his fellow runners. Therefore, Smith, Carlos, and other Black Power advocates were not anti-white or anti-integration. They simply wanted to show that rhetoric of integration was not playing out in the real world in America.
Furthermore, the divisiveness the gesture created in America and even around the world cannot be captured in the photo. The photo represents the optimistic and powerful aspects of Black Power. Dominis shows people of color rising up against oppression, using their own power and determination to win the race against racists. What the photo omits is the aftermath of that singular moment: the deadly silence that set into the stadium after the anthem ended, the racist cries, and the fact that the two athletes who had just won their medals were kicked off their own team. Dominis does not capture racism; he captures power. The photograph shows the truth about Black Power instead of the lies and myths spread by the white dominated media establishment. Dominis’s image does not capture some of the smaller details that are also important for understanding the underlying meaning of the message, including the African beads that Smith wore and the black scarves that both Smith and Carlos put on to represent the Black Power movement. African beads also signal the solidarity between the Black Power movement and anti-colonialist and anti-oppression movements around the world. This is why Norman could also understand the plight of two men who he knew nothing else about, from a country that was not his own. From Australia to Angola, the whole world and its people knew that oppression was a state of affairs that the oppressed had to actively extricate themselves from through activism and mutual support. Other athletes performed similarly symbolic roles, such as Muhammad Ali.
The Olympics was mistakenly believed to be only about sportsmanship and athleticism, but there were also social, political, and economic dimensions of the event. As Hartmann states, the Olympics themselves represent an “international spectacle of symbolism and myth-making,” (6). The Olympics highlighted nationalism and identity, it drew attention to what was going on in different parts of the world, and although it claimed to be completely “amateur” it was commercialized to a great degree. Therefore, the Olympics provided an ideal venue in which athletes and activists like Smith and Carlos to speak to the world. The message Carlos and Smith delivered went beyond the Civil Rights movement in America, which was itself heterogeneous. Far from being only about African-Americans, the Civil Rights movement in the United States was about class, gender, ethnicity, disabilities, and sexual orientation too. Smith and Carlos stood up for what they knew as African-Americans. The Black Power movement specifically was part of the Civil Rights movement that encouraged African-Americans to join together in solidarity against oppression.
The harsh reactions to the fist show that the world was not yet ready to eliminate oppression or even listen to minority voices. The boos and negative headlines were the problem Smith and Carlos protested. With their fists held proudly in the air, Carlos and Smith forced out racism from the cracks and crevices in all parts of America, even those parts that would otherwise claim to be in favor of civil rights. In fact, true equality had yet to be realized. The “distortion” of the Black Power movement, as Hamilton and Ture call it, was a deliberate attempt to maintain the status quo. By distorting the truth about Black Power, the media could pretend that African-Americans were being “anti-white” or generally “uncooperative,” instead of using their freedom of speech to protest persistent inequalities. While Black Power was occasionally connected with Black Nationalism, the movements were distinct. They shared in common a desire for self-empowerment and a rejection of the false hopes that whites in positions of power offered again and again. White power was taken for granted; black power had to be asserted conscientiously and also subversively.
In the years since Smith and Carlos exhibited Black Power at the 1968 Olympics, the world has changed and yet in some ways it has remained the same. Major international sporting events from the Olympics to the World Cup of Soccer outwardly oppose racism making bold statements on their own and in conjunction with individual athletes who are still the brunt of racist remarks. In fact, the organizing committees of these events would be unlikely to react the way the IOC did to Carlos and Smith and might support small acts of protest like these. However, racism still exists within the world of sports and around the world. Black Power seems like a movement from the past, but the Black Lives Matter movement has replaced it and champions the exact same goals. The same reactions are evident in the Black Lives Matter movement as in the Black Power movement. Those who feel threatened by the self-empowerment of oppressed groups are proving the need for those political protests. It is not just Americans who felt threatened by the symbol of empowerment; the fist has been used by labor rights organizations around the world and has been depicted as a “violent” gesture even though it is genuinely a symbol of solidarity (Cushing).
Dominis’s photograph was depicted in 1968 as symbolizing the radical and divisive nature of Black Power rather than as being representative of solidarity and commitment to social justice. As the values of equality became more entrenched in American society, and especially after America has had its first African-American president, the photograph takes on some new meaning. In retrospect, the photograph shows how far America has come and far America has yet to go in achieving equality. America has come a long way in that there are more African-Americans in positions of power like Barack Obama. Yet America has a long way to go in the sense that there are still problems in predominantly black and poor communities. African-American communities are beleaguered with systemic problems including high rates of crime and disproportionate rates of young men being apprehended by law enforcement and incarcerated. Police brutality is also a major area of concern, as recent riots like that in Ferguson echo the same situations that were taking place in 1968. The Black Lives Matter movement reflects the same sort of principles that Smith and Carlos embodied in their bold and courageous gesture made during the 1968 Olympics. The image remains a powerful reminder that racism exists, and the only way to stop racism is to become aware that it does exist while also being firmly committed to doing whatever it takes to eliminate it. The personal is political, and the political is personal, as Smith and Carlos show in their willingness to set aside personal or individual glory to bring deep and meaningful changes to their country and community.
“1968: Black athletes make silent protest.” BBC. 17 Oct, 2005. Retrieved online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/october/17/newsid_3535000/3535348.stm
Cosgrove, Ben. “The Black Power Salute that Rocked the 1968 Olympics.” Time. 27 Sept, 2014. Retrieved online: http://time.com/3880999/black-power-salute-tommie-smith-and-john-carlos-at-the-1968-olympics/
Cushing, Lincoln. “A Brief History of the ‘Clenched Fist’ Image.” Retrieved online: http://www.docspopuli.org/articles/Fist.html
DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Retrieved online: http://www.bartleby.com/114/
Griot. “The White Man in That Photo.” Griot. Retrieved online: http://griotmag.com/en/white-man-in-that-photo/
Hamilton, Charles and Ture, Kwame. Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America. Knopf, 2011.
Hartmannn, Douglas. Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Younge, Gary. “The Man Who Raised a Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games.” The Guardian. 31 March, 2012. Retrieved online: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/mar/30/black-power-salute-1968-olympics
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