We’ve all seen the images recently. Protesters marching with signs, chants and their fists raised high in the air. It has become an iconic symbol of the movement for racial equality and a universal symbol of the quest to bring true meaning to the words “All men are created equal.” Interestingly, the raised fist, has leant its symbolic power to many different causes throughout history.
The earliest depiction of the raised fist as a political statement was a painting by Honoré Daumier, called “The uprising,” created around 1848 and likely inspired by the Revolution of 1848 that led to the overthrow of King Louis-Philippe. In 1914, its power was called on once again by the International Workers of the World Germany to symbolize the unity and resolve of their movement of social revolution. The Communist Party of Germany recognized its long, successful history as a political statement to represent their anti-fascist views. The Spanish Civil War in 1936 saw the anti-fascist meaning continue. The use at that time was an expression of unity against the pro-fascist dictator Francisco Franco. An important part of apprehension for Franco was the sight of thousands of fists lifted high in the air.
That brings us to the 1968 Olympics and the social justice affiliation the raised fist has for us today. The world still grieved for the loss of Martin Luther King, assassinated a few months earlier, along with a growing unrest over civil rights. Dr. Harry Edwards established what became the Olympic Project for Civil Rights whose purpose was to encourage protests against segregation during the Games. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were the first to sign on, seeing the value of the platform the Olympics provided. After winning Gold and Bronze in the 200 meter dash, they mounted the podium and when the national anthem started, they thrust their gloved fists in the air. In his autobiography, “Silent Gesture.” Smith stated that the gesture was not a Black power salute but rather a human rights salute. The Silver Medalist, sprinter Peter Norman, joined Smith and Carlos in wearing human rights badges on his jacket.
The gesture caught the imaginations of many on a visceral level. It galvanized the Civil Rights movement and succeeded more than anyone could have expected. Things didn’t go so well for Smith and Carlos. Avery Brundage, the IOC president ordered them suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic village. The U.S. officials at first refused until Brundage threatened to ban the entire team. When Smith and Carlos returned, they were ostracized by the U.S. sporting establishment and both they and their families received death threats. Through it all, they never regretted their decision to take a stand.
The Black Panther Party, formed in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seal in 1966, also embraced the raised fist. A fist raised in the air was used as their Black Power symbol of resistance and self-defense and a challenge to police brutality.
In more recent times, the fist was used widely by the LBGT movement to represent their struggle for equality. In 2017, during the nationwide Women’s March, the fist found another cause. White nationalists have also used the raised fist, undermining its historical intent.
Black Lives Matter was formed in 2013 by Black organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullers and Opal Tometi in response the acquittal George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin. As their website states “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”
The raised fist was taken up as a BLM symbol after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. It represented unity, solidarity, resilience, and resistance in the face of systemic racism. The death of George Floyd galvanized BLM as it was considered the last straw. In that light, the raised fist took on the added meaning of a call to action to put to rest, once and for all, the racism that has forever plagued the Black community.
For at least one hundred years the raised fist was served many functions, both good and bad. Its power has only grown stronger. The sight of a sea of raised fist held aloft by a determined people has not lost its cultural impact. In Black Lives Matter, it may have found it’s true, and final, purpose.