Pitching in protest. That Black Power salute.


Last Wednesday, unecessarily late, on BBC4 there was a brilliant documentary, Black Power Salute. It went behind the scenes to explore the action and motivation that led to the moment when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists at the Mexico Olympics in 1968. One of the 20th century’s most powerful, enduring images.

Black Power Salute

As the programme spells out this was not a spontaneous gesture. It was, even though not described as such, a brilliantly conceived and stunningly executed pitch, an act of persuasion. It expressed the resentment of black people at that time and fuelled the momentum of civil rights.

I was in the stadium watching, having competed without success in my event a few days earlier. The effect on the ‘ live’ audience was surprisngly muted. A gloved hand has little visual impact at a distance of 70 or so meters. Smith and Carlos knew this. They were targetting the worldwide TV audience whose screens framed, in close up, the men and their raised fists. The iconic image.

Muhammad Ali, the ‘greatest’ pitcher of all time, called it the ‘single most courageous act of the 20th century’. It could be, but for me what is truly astonishing is the way they handled the physical and emotional demands of reaching the final and then having to win. Not for the medals but for the opportunity to protest.

For us lesser mortals, a reminder that a picture is worth a thousand words.

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