Peter Norman, Unsung Hero
of the 1968 Olympics
“Black Power” Protest
"Norman spoke out against racism in America
and in his
native Australia, where Aboriginal
people were first counted in the
year before, had been given the right to vote
years earlier, and were forcibly
removed from their families under a
White Australia policy."
|In these days of #BlackLivesMatter , #HandsUpDontShoot, #ICantBreathe,
#TakeDownTheFlag and #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches, new movements are
brewing and people are searching for ways to do their part to fight
racial injustice. When people ask how they can help in the midst
of everything that is being thrown at us, I can't help but think of
Peter Norman. Who, you ask? He's the man on the left, the
Australian Silver medalist in that iconic photo with Tommie Smith and
John Carlos - the Gold and Bronze medalists - at the 1968 Summer
Olympics in Mexico City.
On October 16, 1968, Smith and Carlos took the victory stand with their
heads bowed and eyes closed, their hands raised with black gloves, and
fists clenched. Their “black power salute” during the playing of the
Star-Spangled Banner was a silent protest by these athletes against
racial injustice, and their statement, viewed then as a controversial
combination of Olympic
sports and politics, sent shock waves throughout the games.
The unsung hero of the Black Power fist salute, Norman not only
suggested that Smith and Carlos share Smith's pair of black gloves, he
also wore a badge in solidarity with the Olympic Project for Human
Rights (OPHR), an organization that called for a boycott of the
Olympics by black athletes, banning apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia
from the Olympics, the hiring of
black coaches and the restoration of Muhammad Ali's boxing title.
Norman spoke out against racism in America and in his native Australia,
where Aboriginal people were first counted in the census the year
before, had been given the right to vote only three years earlier, and
were forcibly removed from their families under a White Australia
“I couldn’t see why a black man wasn’t allowed to drink out of the same
water fountain or sit in the same bus or go to the same schools as a
white guy,” said Norman, who had a strong Salvation Army upbringing.
“That was just social injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from
where I was, but I certainly abhorred it.”
The actions of Smith - the gold medalist in the 200-meter race - and
Carlos - the bronze winner - must be viewed within the context of the
times in which the men lived. And the times were turbulent and
divisive. After all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F.
Kennedy had been assassinated only months before the games at Mexico
City. The United States was engulfed in anti-Vietnam War protests and
civil rights demonstrations.
Antiwar protestors had been beaten by police during the Democratic
National Convention in Chicago. There were calls for black power in
African-American communities throughout the nation, and the Black
Panther Party had expanded to cities across America. And the U.S.
Supreme Court had struck
down the Jim Crow antimiscegenation laws only a year earlier.
On the victory stand, the symbolism of the political statement made by
Smith and Carlos had been well planned. The two athletes wore black
socks with no shoes to represent “black poverty in a racist America,”
while Smith wore a black scarf around his neck standing for black
Carlos - who wore beads for those who were lynched and died in the
Middle Passage - raised his left fist to represent black unity. And
Smith raised his right fist for black power in the U.S.
Together, the men represented unity and power.
“If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did
something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’. We are black and we are
proud of being black,” Smith said at a press conference after the
event. “Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
As a result of their black power salute, Smith and Carlos were
suspended by the U.S. Olympic Committee for a “willful disregard of
Olympic principles.” In an official statement, the U.S. Committee
expressed “its profound regrets” to the International Olympic
committee, the Mexican Organizing Committee and to the people of
Mexico, referring to the black power salute as “discourtesy” and
“The untypical exhibitionism of these athletes also violates the basic
standards of good manners and sportsmanship, which are so highly valued
in the United States, and therefore the two men involved are suspended
forthwith from the team and ordered to remove themselves from the
Olympic Village,” the statement continued.
The U.S. Olympic Committee warned all other athletes, regardless of
color, that any further protests would carry “severe” penalties.
Smith and Carlos were suspended from the team and given 48 hours to
Ultimately, Norman was punished by the Australian Olympic Committee and
made an outcast by the Australian media. Further, he was not selected
for the 1972 Munich games, and was snubbed at the 2000 Sydney games, to
which he was not invited to the opening or closing ceremonies. In 2006,
after he died of a heart attack, Smith and Carlos traveled to Melbourne
to serve as pall bearers at Norman’s funeral.
In 2012, the Australian parliament issued Norman an official posthumous
apology. “A protest like this, on a global stage, had never been done
before. At the time, it was electrifying,” said Australian Member of
Parliament Andrew Leigh issuing an apology to Norman’s family in a
speech before the legislature. “In that moment Norman advanced
international awareness for
racial equality. He was proud to stand with Smith and Carlos and the three remained lifelong friends.”
Long story short, we have to fight the battles against injustice
wherever we find ourselves, because we have no other choice and no one
David A. Love, JD - Serves
BlackCommentator.com as Executive Editor.
He is journalist and human rights advocate
based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to
Progressive Media Project,
McClatchy-Tribune News Service,
In These Times
and Philadelphia Independent Media Center.
He also blogs at davidalove.com,
Salon. He is the Immediate Past Executive Director of Witness to Innocence,
a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row
prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the
movement to abolish the death penalty. Contact Mr. Love and BC.
| is published every Thursday
David A. Love, JD
Nancy Littlefield, MBA