On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both Olympic athletes, were awarded medals in the 200 meter race. This day would be remembered forever by viewers, reporters, and Olympic officials not because Smith set a world record with a time of 19.83 seconds, or because these athletes were African American and would have been denied participation in the Olympics up until the arrival of the 20th century. This event is remembered because, upon receiving their medals, Smith and Carlos each donned a black glove and, in an attempt to show solidarity and resistance in the face of a number of human rights violations, raised their gloved fists while the national anthem played. In doing so, stated the United States Olympic Committee, Smith and Carlos violated “the basic standards of good manners and sportsmanship, which are so highly valued in the United States.”
This site of memory, this gesture—the raising of a closed fist as a sign of black power—did not develop organically within the context of the 1968 Olympics. While the gesture became associated almost exclusively with the black power movement and resistance from unfair policies and unwarranted biases that the black community experienced, the fist has a long, somewhat unclear history. Manifestations of the gesture throughout history suggest that it was not exclusive to people of African descent, but was instead used by different groups across the globe that experienced oppression based on characteristics that include but are not limited to race, gender, social status, and sexual orientation. By brandishing the fist, these people are able to express their rejection of the unjust authority that suppresses them as well as unite with like-minded individuals, to form a collective, and often more effective, means of resistance.
While the fist gesture is not exclusive to the Black Panther Party (learn more about the Black Panther Party’s goals here)which it has famously been associated with, its use by this black nationalist group allowed it to reach a level of ubiquity with which few other gestures can compete. Pictures and video footage of members of the Black Panther Party saluting one another with the raised fist at rallies, conventions, and meetings circulated rapidly in the sixties, leaving no doubt as to what the symbol meant to those individuals. The fist, in conjunction with certain hairstyles, clothing items, and styles of music, contributed to the rise of an aesthetic that was exclusive to the black power movement and those who supported it.
As the cultural and political climate with which the fist gesture first thrived began to shift, so too did the gesture itself. Women’s rights activists Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes (a white and black woman, respectively) were photographed making the fist to show interracial feminist unity, and, in a sense, transcend the traditional boundaries of race that were prescribed by society. The fist became featured in works of popular art like Public Enemy’s music video for their song “Fight the Power,” shown below. It’s true that the message conveyed in this song is largely consistent with the message of resistance that was advocated for by the Black Panthers, but the new mediums, such as music videos, which began showing the gesture, provided an opportunity for the general public not only to become aware of the fist and its meaning, but to reinterpret this meaning for themselves.
Examples of this reinterpretation of the gesture can be seen in countless ways today, from people of every gender, race, and ideological leaning. White politician Bernie Sanders employs the fist frequently at campaign stops and rallies, using it in conjunction with his promotion of economic equality to promote a sense of justice that varies from what was advocated for during the Black Power movement. Donald Trump—same race, different political party—used the fist on the night of his inauguration as a rallying cry for the American people to assist in his quest to “make America great again.” Despite the allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination that Trump has faced and the loud protestation of women over his policies, the fist was embraced by these very women at the Women’s March on Washington and other rallies that advocated for gender equality.
Football player Colin Kaepernick has made headlines over the last year for his public protestation of the treatment of African Americans in the country, with fellow athletes using the fist to show their solidarity with Kaepernick. The fist is used by protestors after every example of police brutality as well, which disproportionately effects African Americans and gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. On the other hand, the fist can be seen among white nationalist groups as well, and was used by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik who was responsible for mass murder in Norway in 2011.
Clearly, the context in which the clenched fist is seen can be wildly variable. While it may be used as a symbol of resistance in nearly all of these circumstances, few other common denominators exist surrounding its usage. The memory of the fist as a symbol of black power is forgotten by white nationalist groups or individuals who exhibit blatant disregard for the welfare of black lives. Those that advocate for equality in terms of gender and economics use the gesture that the Black Panthers made famous and repurpose it for their own use, and no matter how noble that use is, the definitions, boundaries, and meanings of the gesture become more and more uncertain. All of this uncertainty surrounding the current meaning and ramifications of what was once known as the “Black Power fist” beg the question: for a gesture that supposedly means so many things, does it really mean anything at all?