When two young Olympians raised their black-gloved hands from the victor’s podium in Mexico City last fall, they may have symbolized more than they or we recognized. The varied reactions, official discipline, and their own belated efforts at explanation suggest that this is so.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos had finished first and third in the two hundred meter event. At the time appointed for them to receive recognition, the champions walked forward wearing black socks, no shoes, and black gloves—one each—on opposite hands. When the martial tune of the American anthem was struck, they bowed their heads away from the colors and extended clenched fists in racial salute.
Reaction was immediate—a mixture of sympathy and hostility and, more pronounced, a sense of impropriety. Everett Barnes appeared to speak for the United States Olympic Committee when he stated: “I am embarrassed; all of us are embarrassed. It makes our country look like the devil.” However, no action beyond the reprimand was planned: “The committee does not believe the behavior of two members of the U.S. team warrants any formal action at this time since such behavior is viewed an isolated incident.”
But within twenty-four hours, under a threat that the entire American team might be disqualified if stronger action were not taken, Smith and Carlos were dismissed. Their offense was described as violation of the spirit of the Olympian games, a reduction of world community to partisan politics.
Smith later explained their action as symbolic of black power. The right and left gloves, he said, are a sign of fellowship within the black community.
He was right in calling this a symbolic act, one that does not directly affect the situation it addresses. That is, it was not functional; the uplifted arms were not an attempt to help the black man fly, or the clenched fists preparation for striking a white man.
The question is whether the act was effective symbolism. Smith says it was meant to symbolize fellowship, apparently to be realized through black power. This means we must work from black power to black fellowship in attempting to understand the issue.
What is black power? For some, it means anarchy in the streets. This is an unfortunate connotation. Black power means integrity and vitality for the race. It suggests the kind of advantage implied in one black enthusiast’s comment: “I feel sorry for anyone who is not black in this century.”
Power means potential. In itself it is amoral; whether it is good or bad depends on the use to which it is put. Power does not imply delinquency, whether it is in the hands of black or of white. Neither does it imply rectitude, of the black or of the white.
The black-power movement is both blessed and cursed in the name of Christ. Understandably so, but commendation or criticism should be aimed at the means by which black power is realized and the purpose to which it is put. Blackness is simply a matter of integrity, and power the corollary of vitality.
A day after the controversial incident, Lee Evans, Larry James, and Ron Freeman mounted the victor’s podium. They wore black berets and gave the clenched-hand salute. Then, as the first notes of the “Star-Spangled Banner” were heard, the athletes came to attention, snapping the berets from their heads and lifting their faces respectfully to their flag. Their action was both rigorous and restrained; no doubt they’d been urged to do more and to do less.
No significant reaction resulted. There was no public reprimand, and certainly no dismissal. Their action was considered to lie within the limits of acceptable behavior.
How did this differ from the previous symbolic act, which was judged improper? The answer is not difficult to come by. Symbolic acts are culturally defined. They provide no functional or self-contained meaning. A culture will allow, and perhaps encourage, certain deviations in the name of creativity and progress, so long as this does not unduly threaten the existing order. Especially offensive in the first case was the lowering of gaze from the American flag, a challenge to the existence of the very community by which Olympic success may come and for which it is meant.
That is not to say that if Smith and Carlos had stood with heads unbowed the act would have remained within the safe zone. Symbols are seldom that simply interpreted. Timing, for instance, may be a critical factor. The point is that one act proved unduly threatening (more so to the international officials than to the Americans) and the other did not.
The mysterious entity that determines such matters is the establishment, the awareness of community and the means by which it is perpetuated. The establishment is variously evaluated, depending upon the degree to which it seems to serve invested interest and/or allow adaptation. At worst it is thought to destroy human initiative, and at best to channel it into rewarding avenues.
The establishment is generally alluded to by the collective term “they,” or the more impersonal “it.” For Smith and Carlos, they or it is white and repressive. When pressed by a reporter as to whether he was glad to be an American, Smith hedged: “I am glad to be a black American.” An American—yes; but an advocate of the establishment—no!
Cultural myth is the generally accepted idea of what life is, its nature, priorities, and sanctions. The establishment is the guardian of cultural myth—a legacy and legality that, though it may constrict, is a must if men are to get on with the matters of living. Establishments may be altered or replaced but never eliminated.
An establishment is required because myth is necessary. Immediate evidence can not always satisfy the doubts of individual and groups. There must be at least a qualified trust, such as that illustrated in the observation: “Democracy is a poor style of government but the best we have been able to devise.”
Disenchantment with myth is to be expected. It takes the form of a power minority, protest against the existing order. When the power minority succeeds in gaining ascendancy, it becomes the protector of a new myth.
The current debate may take the high or low road. That is, it may revolve around whether such incidents tend to further a loyal or disloyal (regardless of intention) minority, or it may reduce to simplistic charges and counter-charges concerning the imagined good will of the parties involved. To put it another way, the issue is what constitutes creative criticism of cultural myth.
One may ask; “What is the Christian thing to do?” This approach could be our undoing. The fact is that there is no Christian thing to do. What the believer has is moral principles, concretely applied in Holy Writ; he has neither specific mandates nor the unfailing wisdom necessary to formulate them.
There is no Christian answer, only answers that Christians give. The Church must put its humility forward, in hopes that by admonition and example it can convince others to refrain from deifying their own particular solutions. Non-absolutes must not become absolute, or else man attempts to play God, passing off his imperfect effort as the perfect way.
The clue to success is the avoidance of sweeping generalizations, in regard to the establishment on the one hand and the black-power movement on the other. There are rationalizations and mixed motives and ideals on both sides. The Christian must hold out against a crusade, either in the name of law and order or in the name of equality. He must work to keep lines from consolidating, from reaching the point at which there is no recourse but to a meeting of irresistible force with immovable object.
This service amounts to an attack on idolatry. It is the refusal to let man make his golden calf and require others to worship it. The Christian is a social iconoclast, one who tears down false images.
The result of purging the land of gods is the release of man to a responsible role and potential fulfillment. While the Christian ethic may be more, it is never less than humanistic, measuring action by its anticipated effect on men. In so doing, it shuns both legalism and libertarianism.
Christ charged: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). That is, the ordinances were meant to benefit man rather than to constrict him needlessly. The prime test would not be how meticulously he observed the detail but how well he profited from the exercise. The Christian repudiates legalism.
Christ likewise disavowed libertarianism. The adulterous woman was forgiven, but not without the charge: “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). There is no humanistic fulfillment where either legalism or license is allowed to proceed unchecked. Man must be freed to seek his destiny among his fellows, and to bear the responsibility for his choices.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul” (Mark 8:36)? Scripture paints the godless life in the most repugnant imagery. It is lostness of the creature made for communion but now alienated. It is death of the creature dependent upon but wrenched from the Source of Life.
The Christian wants to put God back into man’s future, not as one who impinges on man’s responsibilities but as one who elevates them with the possibility of fulfillment. He does not have to compete with men, for the cattle on a thousand hills are his; rather, he constrains them toward moral ends. Service of God and man are not opposing demands; indeed, they are best achieved in consonance with each other.
The result is twofold: the ability to accept approximate means and the encouragement to believe that efforts in God’s grace may lead to more adequate solutions. The Christian develops perseverance, an ability to tolerate the undesirable situation. He is not anxious or driven to frantic activity that may permanently postpone the very purpose for which it it initiated.
This patience is not passive but purposive. It is a perseverance after righteousness that is born out of confidence in God’s sovereign will. Circumstances may seem to deny, but faith entertains the moral course of events and leads one to pledge his full energies to that end. God is still the Lord of history, upon whom man will build or against whom he will be broken.
This has been an effort, not to judge the action of Smith and Carlos, but to understand it as a symbol with cultural and Christian ramifications. There is no specific Biblical mandate to cover it, no proof-text upon which to decide whether it is right or wrong.
There are, however, the moral principles and course of application in Scripture to guide us. In this case they repudiate idolatry—the setting up of absolute claims by either the establishment or the black-power movement; they elevate man—whether through the establishment and/or through black power; and they invite man into God’s future—beyond both establishment and black power.
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