At the 11th Olympiad in 1936, an American sprinter single-handedly challenged a dangerous and pernicious assumption: Aryan racial superiority. Germany was the host nation, and Adolf Hitler was safely established at the head of the snake. He had hoped to use the Olympic games to prove the superiority of the Aryan race. Jesse Owens had other ideas. He left with four gold medals. When he returned home to America he was snubbed by the President and was back to being a second-class citizen. Jesse Owens was Black.
In 1947 Major League Baseball had been segregated for over 60 years. There were separate leagues for Black and Latino players. Beginning in the 1930s, progressive activists and civil rights groups started pushing for the integration of baseball, amidst a broader movement striving to address housing and job discrimination. Branch Rickey, a white executive with the Brooklyn Dodgers, was part of the movement to integrate baseball. He signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract and was clear with Robinson when they made their deal: Robinson had to rise above the vitriol and he had to be non-violent. In his first game in Philadelphia, Robinson was repeatedly told to “go back to the cotton fields”. Robinson couldn’t stay in the same hotels as his teammates.
The integration of baseball helped paved the way for some political reforms and changes in civil society. It began the slow process of normalizing integrated workplaces. The landmark civil rights act in America wasn’t passed until 1965. Baseball was nearly twenty years ahead of the curve in American society.
Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens had to be twice as good, and twice as peaceful. They couldn’t lash out, they couldn’t react, they couldn’t appear to be “angry”. They had to be model citizens, despite the torrent of abuse from whites. That was the price they had to pay as Black men in America hoping to strive for positive change.
In 1968 at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos placed third and first respectively, and whilst on the podium chose to raise a black-gloved fist into the air. This was at a time of serious racial conflict in America. The false dawn of the civil rights act gave way to the Long Hot Summer of 1967. In sport, Muhammad Ali was in the midst of his protest against both racial injustice and the Vietnam War and was barred from boxing anywhere in America. And, a few months before the Olympics, Martin Luther King, a champion of non-violent activism, was assassinated in April of 1968. Raising a fist in solidarity at the Olympics a few months later was literally a no-brainer for Smith and Carlos.
The raised fist is a symbol of solidarity and support, used to express unity and defiance against oppression. First used as a logo in 1917 by the Industrial Workers of the World, it has been used by a variety of oppressed groups within civil societies around the world. It was a symbol of the anti-fascist coalition in the Spanish Civil War and then taken up as the mantle of black power in the 1960s. Interestingly, a raised white fist is a symbol of Aryan white nationalism.
The gesture by Smith and Carlos was strongly denounced at the time. It’s still seen as one of the most overtly political gestures in the history of the Olympics, which is ironic considering how political the 1936 Olympics were. Smith and Carlos were thrown out of the Olympics by the President of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage. Brundage was the President of the American Olympic Committee in 1936, and made no objections to the Nazi salutes during the games, arguing that that the Nazi salute, being a national salute at the time, was acceptable in a competition of nations, while the raised fist salute did not belong to a nation and was therefore “outrageous”.
Jesse Owens was ostracised by American society. Jackie Robinson was met with an unending torrent of abuse, death threats and overt physical violence. Muhammad Ali was literally barred from boxing in his prime and had his passport revoked. They all protested peacefully, adhering to the principle of twice as good. Today we see them as heroes.
In 2016 Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback in the National Football League decided to take a knee during the national anthem to quietly protest police brutality and racial injustice. The response to his non-violent gesture was so strong that the president of the United States decided to get involved with a series of barbed tweets and a racially charged speech at a rally in Alabama.
In 1936, Jesse Owens used his athletic talent to prove Hitler wrong, came back to America and was ignored by the President. In 2017, the President chose to attack an African American athlete for his non-violent protest against ongoing racial discrimination.
There is a common thread here: non-violent Black protest is met with anger or violence. The irony, of course, is that violent Black protest is also met with anger and violence. Lest we forget the riots in Detroit in the 60s or LA in the 90s. Which begs the question: what are we supposed to do? Peace is met with anger and anger is met with anger. A tragic binary. Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi are perhaps the two best examples of leaders of nonviolent protest movements, and both were assassinated by extremists.
After the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Lebron James and the Miami Heat wore hoodies in solidarity, heads bowed, peacefully protesting. The implication is clear: Trayvon could have been any of them. A black man wearing a hoodie. And yet four years later, Colin Kaepernick takes a knee, protesting the same thing. Today, he still doesn’t have a job in the NFL, which is a direct result of his protest. Jackie Robinson, Mohammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos actively used their platforms as athletes to push for social change. Their peaceful protests in the name of social change were met with resistance, ostracisation and overt violence.
So how do we address deep-rooted racism and prejudice? Especially if peaceful protest is met with violent recourse. Lest we forget Charlottesville from this past summer, or worse yet, the Charleston church shooting in 2015. It’s clear that those with the most to lose from racial equality will do all they can to oppose it. So how do we move forward?
By Rashid Mohiddin
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.