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Domesticating Dissent

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


Domesticating Dissent


12 Responses

  1. Right on, JLL. Even more than reducing contemporary interpretations of the protest to a symbol of neoliberal individualism, public memory of 1968 also retroactively assigns an individualistic frame to the original protest itself. So not only is the evolution of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s all but ignored, the specific context of the Olympic Project for Human Rights is typically forgotten. Smith and Carlos, therefore, are seen as independent actors, for better or for worse. So for those who celebrate the image, these men are elevated to a kind of heroic status that obscures the larger movement; and for those who object to what they did, Smith and Carlos are representative symbols of the self-serving radicalism produced by the 1960s. Neither perspective does much to foster political action in the here and now.

    As for the fascination with private lives, this was also evident when Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist pictured alongside Smith and Carlos, died in 2006. As the photograph shows, Norman wore the OPHR patch in support of the protest, and Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral. As I recall, the media coverage primarily featured the friendship forged through protest and failed to discuss any long-term political consequences.

    Of course, this is the trick of contemporary cultural politics, no? Feature and privilege individual moments, images, and narratives in order to obscure any underlying political structures…

  2. Michael says

    What I have never fully understood about that photo is why the two guys’ eyes are averted. I used to suppose, insofar as I had any idea at all, that it was a combination of defiance (raised fists) and reverence for the cause. But that doesn’t make much sense. Any ideas?

  3. Lucaites says

    Michael B: Absolutely. I would have gone on to say much of that, but the post was getting a bit on the long side as it was. But all you say is right on the mark … and very well put.

    Michael: You have to remember that the “black power salute” takes place while the Star Spangled Banner is playing, and I think that their eyes are cast down in “mourning” — which suggests (to my mind) a more complex relationship (at least for some) between “civil rights” and “black power.” We know that at least Carlos had something of a relationship with King, having met with him weeks before his assassination. It is possible that there is something of a mourning of what was or could have been, even as they move on to something more powerful.

  4. brendadada says

    Interesting stuff. I remember this well, it was a shocking moment: I could not get my mother to explain it to me, she was well educated and politically aware, but she had no knowledge of the politics of race and racism, apart from her sympathy for King as a Christian and martyr to his just cause.

    The idea that Olympic athletes, clean-living and wholesome, could be associated with an extremist (as mother saw it) no-holds-barred group of activists seemed almost inconceivable. I myself was incredibly moved by the moment. The bravery of their denial of the flag, at a time when black people were being routinely murdered, bus protests, lunch cafes, all that stuff, just seemed so heroic. This moment, where in our household, we all seemed to experience a deafening silence during which it was quite possible to imagine gunshot and the men falling to the ground. There was a huge surge of feeling in the UK that the world would inevitably change after this.

    Normally, athletes look up at their country’s flag while their national anthems are playing. The eyes cast down are to show a deliberate aversion to the nationalism represented in both flag and anthem.

    A wonderful moment, and a nice piece, John. Thank you for the background, and to Michael B above.

  5. Tom says

    I disagree with the reading of the NYT photograph, in that the old b&w images are hardly given prominence in the image and what strikes me most is the observed relationship between the two men. After reading the article it became clear what was the cause of the tension I saw in their faces. The fact that the b&w images are there and that Dr. King’s image is closer to the camera is to me completely incidental, though I can understand why and how it would be possible to interpret this arrangement in such a way as you have done.

    At the risk of appearing over-analytical myself, I also think it is worth pointing out that the ‘enduring dispute’ can be read as an extension of the fractured nature of political and social movements today. Too often are the greater issues clouded by personal squabbles and ego fuelled power trips. I thought this article highlighted something very sad and poignent in that even such an iconic show of symbolic solidarity has become overshadowed by just such pettiness. And that points to a greater truth than if the article had been a rehashing of an idealism from 40 years ago. To explore ‘the more important tension animating our understanding of the relationship between the “civil rights movement” and the “black power movement.”’ would take many more words than there is space for either here or in the NYT article and any attempt to discuss it simply would result in a gross incompleteness at best.

    Rather than domesticating the photograph from 1968 – a claim I find absurd, since this photograph actually does nothing to diminish the importance or power of the previous one – this photograph is perhaps a useful footnote in history and the article a lesson to the idealists of today.

  6. Lucaites says

    Tom — First, I went to your website and love our pictures. Second, I think you make lots of good points here, many which I agree with, not least the way in which the limitations on space make it difficult to develop more complex analyses … though I’m troubled by how quickly you are willing to resign yourself to that and thus find ways to reinforce what, to my mind, is a very clear domestication of the image (a point that is clearly arguable, as you show, but hardly “absurd” as you assert). My point was not that the authors of the article should reinscribe the idealism of an older era but that media practices function to reframe the image in terms of questions of individualism — and here a rather bourgeois notion of the private individual — rather than the more collective, democratic moment being invoked by the original image and event. And to push the point further, there is nothing unique about this, i.e., it is a somewhat common media practice. Take an image that seems to speak to a larger democratic moment and then focus attention on the individuals in the image per se, as if they were the issue itself, rather than to recognize how they were ciphers for something larger But I do agree that your reading and mine calls attention to a key tension in democratic public culture and one that needs to be discussed and engaged … so thanks for speaking out.

  7. Lucaites says

    Oh, and by the way, that the B&W images are “hardly given prominence” seems to me to be very much to the point of the domestication of BOTH the original image and the race based movements of the 1960s. On one hand they seem to have faded from memory — literally and figuratively — and we get King rather than the advocates of black power given pride of place (however fading).

  8. tom says

    Lucaites, thanks for the compliment on my photography!

    I agree completely with the observation that today’s media often individualises and in doing so also trivialises many major issues. The cult of personality is a dangerous thing. However, individual stories can often inform and enlighten in a way more general histories and philosophies cannot. It is a balanced mix of the two that provide a fuller picture of events. I for one found this article to be just one element in a large and complex story.

    You have raised some interesting points with your analysis of this photograph and I’d now like to find out the story behind how and why the b&w images became part of the picture. For myself I maintain that they are still incidental and the power of the originals remains undiminished. Obviously that is only my personal assessment and though I may disagree with how you read the image, I nevertheless am in accord with where this particular reading takes you in terms of a wider debate on the issues.

    Thanks for getting my mind going on a Sunday morning!

  9. Lucaites says

    My guess is that these guys are standing on a stage and the images are part of the background … this is a traveling show they are doing — but of course none of that gets discussed in the story. The images are just there … and so the photo takes on its own “allegorical” sensibility. My hope is that the careful “reader” of the image (and here I mean of all images, not just this one) will think past the simple “realism” of the picture to how the various elements put on display invite interpretation. There will always be more than one, of course, and from my perspective as long as we keep that sensibility alive we are doing good work.

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