When I ask my students to make a list of iconic photographs they almost invariably recall the image of the two black athletes at the 1968 Olympics with their hands raised in a “black power” salute.
They rarely know the names of the athletes, nor can they typically recall the particular track event that was being celebrated or who won what medal, but the image itself seems to be seared in their collective consciousness. And why not? Reproductions of the photograph of this moment of political dissent during a time of social and civic turmoil are ubiquitous. Indeed, one can barely read about the 1968 Olympics without the picture showing up, and indeed it has been the subject of several movies including an HBO documentary film titled “Fists of Freedom: The Story of the ’68 Summer Games.” It was prominently displayed in the movie Remember the Titans and it is available for purchase as a mural-sized poster and as a fine art print, as well as stenciled on t-shirts; a rendition of it was cast as a larger than life size statue and is on display at San Jose State University were the two athletes went to school. Both of the men—Tommie Smith and John Carlos—have recently published autobiographies about their experiences featuring their moment on the victory stand.
Given the notoriety of the photograph it is of little surprise that Smith and Carlos have embarked on a year long lecture tour in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the “black power” salute and the significance of the moment of political dissent that it depicts. What is surprising—if not altogether disappointing—is how the NYT chose to cover the lecture tour as it made its way to the Black National Theater in Harlem last Wednesday. The Times article is titled “Enduring Image Leads to Enduring Dispute” and the story it reports focuses on the petty and personal jealousies that have vexed the lives of Smith and Carlos, once good friends who now “harbor deep-seated and previously unexpressed resentment toward each other.”
As with so many iconic photographs – think of the migrant mother, the flag raising on Iwo Jima, the Times Square Kiss, the Kent State massacre, accidental napalm, and the list goes on – popular interest seems quickly to shift from the key public issues represented and negotiated by such images to the subsequent private lives of the individuals being depicted, i.e., who are they? what became of them? And so on. And in the process, the complexities of significant political events central to the history of liberal-democratic public culture fade deeper and deeper into the background, as a neo-liberal interest in the life of the individual trumps the public interests of a democratic polity. Or at least that is how such images are typically treated by the national media.
This cultural and ideological revisionism is marked by the photograph that accompanies the NYT report on Smith and Carlos:
The first thing to note is that the image signifies the tension between “then” and “now” while putting the accent on the present moment. The point is emphasized spatially as the contemporary Carlos (on the left) and Smith (on the right) dominate the image. But note too that the two men are cast in the light and seen in living color, while the past that spawned their relationship is represented by black and white photographs and cast in dark shadows. The author of the article bemoans the “inevitable” moment when “idealism” (then, black and white) gives way to “reality” (now, in color), but the focus in the article on the contemporary travails of these two men (now more private individuals than citizens) seems reinforced by the photograph which treats the past as a antique and fading memory. One might wish for more attention to the idealism of that earlier time, perhaps emphasizing a truly “Olympian” moment when at least some athletes were guided more by issues of social justice—and its attendant risks—than by private self-interest. But I think that there is a different and more important point to be made here, for the photograph above also functions to domesticate the original image of the “black power salute.”
Notice how the contemporary photograph puts the black and white image of King closer to the foreground than the iconic image of Smith and Carlos, even though chronologically the later image is more recent. Our present day remembrances of King thus become the frame through which we are encouraged to view and interpret the original image of the two athletes, and accordingly it is the standard of King’s Christianized, “beloved community” that becomes the marker of idealism against which the current day dispute between Carlos and Smith is to be measured (and found lacking). What this ignores is that the 1968 summer Olympics took place nine months after the publication of the Kerner Commission Report, six months after the assassination of Dr. King, and in the midst of increasing concerns that the then so-called “civil rights movement” had lost its political edge and effectivity. And most of all, what it ignores is that the “black power salute” – a phrase which is never once mentioned in the NYT article – constituted a very different and more threatening political idealism than the one we retrospectively affiliate with King’s “dream.”
In short, what we seem to be witnessing is the domestication of a valued photograph that marks and models an important and radical moment of dissent in the life of the polity. The tragedy here is that the “enduring dispute” announced in the title of the NYT article refers to a normalizing, private quarrel between two individuals, and not the more important tension animating our understanding of the relationship between the “civil rights movement” and the “black power movement.”
Photo Credits: Staff Photo/AP, Gabriele Stabile/NYT