The Fisted Glove
by Randall Auxier
Stephen Stills once wrote “There’s a rose in the fisted glove, and the eagle flies with the dove.” I have never been able to get these images out of my head. I just see the fisted glove with the rose, and the eagle protecting the dove. It’s about power and love. In my vision, the gloved fist grips the thorny stem and is unhurt, while the rose is just coming into bloom. But the fist could be crushing the rose, couldn’t it? Why do we envision one thing first and overlook another?
This famous image of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman is from the 1968 Olympics. It is also about power and love. They won the 200 meter race and here they are on the medal platform. It enraged millions, because most people saw only the symbols of power. There is a more famous image and still others from different angles that conceal some very important aspects of the scene. Other versions of the image are cropped to similar effect. But the full image, in color, raises some interesting questions.
Just about everyone notices the fisted glove first, and they also notice that Smith and Carlos are looking down. Knowing that the “Star Spangled Banner” is playing, “we” know they are averting their gaze from the flag of the United States. And that is pretty much what “we” see: disloyalty, a rejection of their nation, a commitment militant race consciousness that couldn’t wait for a more appropriate moment to be expressed. “We” wanted to be proud of Smith and Carlos, our fellow citizens, and they said “don’t you dare,” unless you are black. This interpretation of the event is a profoundly mistaken —objectively mistaken– but deeply revealing.
Malcolm X inspired a similar reaction in millions of people, and sometimes he meant to. He pointed his finger and said words he knew would frighten people. He pronounced the collective guilt of people whose entire psychology depended on excusing themselves for the sins of their fathers. Like this picture, though, when you look closely at what Malcolm actually said, it isn’t scary. Frankly it’s better, safer, in the long run, to have white privilege revealed so that the unconscious guilt can be relieved. Malcolm was doing a service for the dominant culture.
Still, it was tough love. It’s the way he told us, and who he was, that people found threatening (and not just white people). He insisted on the TRUTH and wouldn’t settle for the truth. I don’t mean every utterance was verifiable. I mean that he articulated a moral and spiritual TRUTH that eclipsed our softer sensibilities. But I don’t think it was just rhetoric. There is the friend who asks you what’s in your heart, and then there’s the friend who risks the friendship to call you out when you’re doing something stupid or even wrong. One leads you to the truth, but the other tells you the TRUTH. It could be the same friend, couldn’t it? Depending on what you need?
In recent months I blogged about four public virtues, Extreme Virtues: commitment, self-reflection, integrity, and connectedness. These have faded, as public virtues, from our political and social leadership. COMMITMENT and INTEGRITY are what you might call “capital virtues.” They enable us to stand against our communities, to question norms, practices, assumptions, and to insist upon unpopular TRUTHS. On the other side we find “lower case virtues,” the quiet powers of self-reflection and connectedness to community enable us to question ourselves, to be humble, to recognize when we are wrong, to have empathy. These virtues help us find truth. Big things come in quiet packages.
Aristotle said that every virtue is a golden mean between an “excess” and a “deficiency.” But is there ever an excess of truth? Someone asks you: “Does this make me look fat?” or “Am I the best lover you’ve ever had?” Here the TRUTH (the answer that shows my COMMITMENT to complete honesty, preserving my INTEGRITY) may be counter to virtue, at least as it relates to wisdom, right? Here, the truth (showing my empathy for others, and my awareness that I value the relationship) should be enough, right? But sometimes the truth is not enough; sometimes it must be the TRUTH, right?
Are Smith and Carlos guilty of an excess of TRUTH in this public moment? Let’s look closer. All three runners are wearing human rights badges, over their hearts and next to their national patches. This is done in violation of the Olympic rules for platform appearances. There was a massacre of Mexican students the week before the Olympics began. The students were protesting, among other things, the Olympics. Smith, Norman and Carlos were expressing a protest on behalf of human rights against the Mexican government, they said. They didn’t think dozens –perhaps hundreds– of young people should be slaughtered by the army to quiet the local populace for the Olympics.
Smith and Carlos removed their shoes and stand in black socks. This is about black poverty in the US, symbolizing the humiliation and suffering of those who truly have no shoes. Carlos, who is Roman Catholic, wears prayer beads around his neck, symbolizing, as he put it, all those African Americans who were lynched without anyone praying for them. Carlos has his warm-up suit unzipped, in defiance of Olympic protocol, to show his blue collar –a symbol of solidarity with workers. These are all symbols of connection. And yes, the fisted glove is about empowering blacks. In all, the groups being addessed symbolically are varied, but they have in common their oppression by the powerful.
But the most important piece of information is in Tommie Smith’s left hand. In a box with a glass top, he carries an olive branch, actually a sapling still to be planted. It is the universal symbol for peace and reconciliation. This is militancy? Think again.
You don’t find glass-cased olive saplings for sale on the street corner. This “protest” was not some spur of the moment expression of emotional outrage. Smith, Carlos and Norman discussed for hours what they should do, planned it, chose their symbols and procured them, and then bravely did it. If this was about COMMITMENT and INTEGRITY, it was also about self-reflection and connectedness. The only genuine enemy of any of these virtues would be the absence of a balance between power and love. These symbolic acts strike that balance, but people didn’t see it.
People saw the athletes’ protest the way they saw Malcolm X, not noticing the restraint, humility, empathy, connection, dignity, love, and a sincere desire for peace. People noticed what they feared: words of power, warning, determination, resistance. Look at the picture again. It is wholly nonviolent, with carefully selected symbols of connection, empathy, and peace, along with power and resistance. Peter Norman stood in solidarity with Carlos and Smith, protesting the White Australia policy in his country. He made his own message clear afterwards –and he was ostracized for it. He could have been a national hero. This ruined his life. Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Village and suffered death threats and endless verbal abuse when they came home.
All three athletes knew what would happen. Yet, they were true to the Olympic spirit and to the call of conscience. They stood both for TRUTH and truth, for power and love. That is Malcolm X, too. People see the fisted glove and overlook the olive branch. But it’s there. One learns to notice it by overcoming one’s own fear, and guilt, and the fear of guilt. I wonder if that sapling really got planted, and where, and whether it still lives.
This encounter wasn’t scheduled, but it wasn’t wholly accidental. There were people who wanted to see this meeting occur, and far more who feared it.