The Black Power Fist: The History Behind the Meaning

The Black Power Fist: The History Behind the Meaning

The Raised Fist Throughout History

Throughout history, the raised fist has made appearances in multiple revolutions. As early as the French Revolution, in contemporary history, and even the Spanish Civil War. Though there are historical depictions of clenched fists in revolutionary art and anti-fascist movements, the black power fist had its first highly-publicized appearance in 1968 at the Olympics in Mexico City.

 

The First Global Appearance of the Black Power Fist

It made its debut in the Olympics in 1968, during a crucial time in the Social Rights Movement in the U.S. Before their participation, Martin Luther King, Jr. himself requested to meet with John Carlos, one of the black track-and-field athletes to compete that year. He suggested the athletes gain attention to the civil rights movement through nonviolent means.

The stage would be globally televised and a huge opportunity for exposure. The two athletes, both Carlos and Tommie Smith, vowed to protest if they placed. They won third and first place, respectively, and raised a clenched fist in Mexico City during the U.S. National Anthem. This image, reportedly, stunned the audience. The media and Olympic administration called for swift punishment and even suggested stripping them of their well-earned accolades.

In response, both Carlos and Smith were barred from future participation in the Olympics. They were still at the beginning of the career — this was detrimental to the athletic futures. It affected their children, their marriage, and, of course, their professional development.

The waves were felt around the world. It was a symbol of nonviolent political protest and acted as a megaphone for justice for Black Americans. And the athletes felt the repercussions. Peter Norman, the white Australian athlete who won the silver medal, was barred from rejoining the Australia Olympic team despite qualifying because he maintained his support for his American opponents.

Fortunately, the athletes were met with plenty of support as well. Once they returned to San Jose State University in northern California, hundreds of students showed up in solidarity. One account recalls hundreds of students showing up, raising their fists in the air, as Carlos and Smith appeared. And with that, the raised fist became a symbol of black power and unity.

The Mexico City Olympics photo is powerful. These men stood by their principles, suffered severe consequences in their professional and personal lives, but they never wavered from their position. This gesture was a public demonstration of courage and justice. And 60 odd years later, this revolutionary, non-violent act is just as iconic as it was then. 

 

White Power Fist: A Symbol of Terrorism

In the 1980s, the “Aryan Fist” appropriated the black power fist to symbolize white supremacy, switching out the black and darker-skinned colored fist for a white one. There have been multiple instances of counter-movements and improper use of the raised fist in recent history. Most notably, Donald Trump felt it appropriate to raise a clenched fist after his 2017 inauguration.

Thankfully, the white power fist is officially seen as a hateful symbol. Though there were multiple instances of white terrorists and white supremacists abusing the clenched fist, the black lives matter movements globally have reclaimed it as a symbol of Black Power.

 

The Raised Fist: A Symbol for Black Power in the 1960s

Among so many revolutionary movements, the black power fist persevered through the years. During the 1960s, the Social Rights Movement was led by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr., the pacifist minister who believed in nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. Other notable leaders were Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X. Collectively, each of their followings played a huge part in driving the civil rights discussion towards racial injustices.

The renowned Black Panther party is associated with the Black Power Fist as the symbol for their movement. In 1966, college students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seal formed the Black Panther Party to influence political change for Black Americans. They were heavily influenced by Malcom X and the communist ideology.

The Party is seen raising the Black Power Fist throughout media photo records. Their approach to the Black Power movement branched off from King's nonviolent means - they believed in armed self-defense, so the fist came to symbolize both Black empowerment and physical strength. This also earned them FBI surveillance and further criminal discrimination against prominent black leaders.

 

Other Defining Moments in History

Another notable event occurred in 1990 in South Africa. Anti-apartheid revolutionary hero Nelson Mandela was released from prison after serving 27 years for conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid. South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement had gained traction, and Mandela was given little notice about his release.

He and his then-wife, Winnie, walked out of prison, both raising a fist in triumph. He was ready to continue his fight upon his release, under both public and political scrutiny. Mandela and the African National Congress maintained a focus on dismantling the apartheid’s racist legacy.

 

How Pride and Black Lives Matter Intersect

How do Black Lives Matter and the Pride community relate? It just so happens that the first pride celebration was the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman from New York City, was a major player during the fight. She was a civil rights and gay rights activist. She was crucial in propelling the gay rights movement forward.

In recent years starting in 2016 to 2020, Black Trans Lives gained attention lacking support during the current Black Lives Matter movement. It is important to show solidarity for trans lives because they face a disproportionate amount of discrimination on two separate fronts: racism and transphobia. They faced severe discrimination in their own black and African-American communities — the murder rate for black trans lives is staggering compared to trans individuals of other races.

 

How the LGBTQIA+ Community Supports BLM

Racial justice is an intersectional issue. These injustices do not exist in a vacuum. There are many ways to show your support for racial justice and the gay community. Attend a protest, educate yourself about black and gay experiences and lastly, amplify these marginalized voices. Pride Palace also designed a hoodie — show your community and circles of influence that you advocate for the BLM movement and gay rights.

 

Black Lives Matter Movement: A Global Movement

The Black Power fist became the unofficial symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement, or BLM, in the United States. The movement gained national attention in 2014 after the murder of Tamir Rice, in 2016 after the murder of Philando Castile, then again in 2020 with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and so many other precious black lives in the past decade alone.

The black, African-American communities and racial justice advocates across many ethnic communities organized protests against police brutality. These efforts paved the way for global movements. From here, the BLM movement began to take shape across the globe, popping up in England, Japan, Australia, and so many more countries who wanted to show their solidarity and bring national attention to their country's systemic racism.

 

Key Takeaways

The Black Power fist has stood the test of time. From the 1960s civil rights movement to the current global BLM movement, it continues to serve as the symbol for Black empowerment and solidarity among supporters and the affected communities. It is important to remember that the fight for social justice is an intersectional struggle. The way forward is to listen to marginalized voices and to amplify their efforts to carve out well-earned safe spaces.

 


Sources:

https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/06/11/190671704/the-day-nelson-mandela-walked-out-of-prison

https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/aryan-fist

https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2018/10/16/657548752/those-raised-fists-still-resonate-50-years-later

https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/foundations-black-power


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