A Tale of Two Photos

I was only nine years old, but I recall the image clearly:  an Olympic medal ceremony, two African-American athletes standing on the podium, black-gloved fists raised, heads bowed. It’s fair to say that the 1968 protest by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City, and the political brouhaha that followed, is one of my earliest political memories.

I was reminded of it by a front-page story a few days ago about a photo currently sparking controversy. It shows a group of African-American women, all members of this year’s graduating West Point class, posing in what’s known as an “Old Corps” photograph. Dating back to the 19th century, “Old Corps” photos show groups of cadets dressed in formal regalia, celebrating their impending graduation. The current one makes for a striking update, sixteen black women in traditional gray dress uniforms with sabers at their belts. And one additional element: they are all raising their fists.

The Times reports that the image, posted on Facebook, “touched off a barrage of criticism in and out of the armed forces, as some commenters accused the women of allying themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and sowing racial divisions in a military that relies on assimilation.” The article outlines the military’s emphasis on an apolitical officer corps, and quotes a former drill sergeant who argues that the women’s gesture affiliates them with a movement “known for inflicting violent protest throughout various parts of the United States” -- and as such constitutes a political statement, while in uniform, “that goes against Army policies.” He likens the gesture to occasions when he disciplined soldiers for making a Nazi salute in photographs. If the Nazi salute is punished, why not the black-power fist?

Let me pause here to think out loud about how we form our political opinions and present them in the public square. There’s a lot you could say to the drill sergeant. By way of addressing the Nazi salute argument, you’d engage the problem of false equivalency. Beyond that you’d allude to historical evidence that other cadets have indulged in political symbolism and gone unpunished (in the 1970s, male cadets who opposed coeducation at West Point appeared in one photo carrying footballs, basketballs and baseballs in a crude exhortation to maintain the officer ranks as a preserve for those, with, well, balls.) You could discuss both the theory and the history of politics and the military. You’d note the hyperbole and inaccuracy of his characterization of Black Lives Matter. And you would offer an interpretation of the photo itself, delving into the intentions and the effect of the women’s gesture.

You’d go through all the relevant arguments, in other words – and there are plenty of good, convincing arguments. Yet how often do convincing arguments ever actually convince anyone in a political disagreement?  Far more determinative is one’s immediate gut response to any particular political phenomenon. Seeing this photo, for instance, do you sympathize? Or do you recoil at what you take to be an insolent challenge to tradition and authority?

What I recall about the Mexico City black-power salute is first the image itself, and second, the atmosphere in which it landed. This was 1968, a year of war, protests, and riots; political and racial acrimony had seeped throughout the society. In fact Smith and Carlos’ gesture was no mere black-power salute, but rather an all-purpose human rights statement. Along with the black gloves, the two went barefoot in order to protest poverty, donned necklace beads to protest lynchings, and wore buttons affiliating themselves with the Olympic Project for Human Rights, whose demands ranged from banning South Africa from the Olympics, to restoring Muhammad Ali's heavyweight boxing title. And a little-known fact is that the third man on the medal podium, a white Australian named Peter Norman, wore his own OPHR badge as well, in solidarity – and was roundly reviled back home for doing so.

But the political moment didn’t conduce to fine distinctions, at least not in my family. My father was a Democrat undergoing slow conversion to what would become Reagan Republicanism; in 1968 he was about to vote Republican for the first time. An upward climber from a working-class family, he was patriotic, sympathetic to cops, wary of campus protestors and deeply hostile to the Black Panther/Stokely Carmichael/Malcolm X wing of the civil-rights movement. He also was a huge sports fan. While I can’t recall the specifics of how he reacted, his angry take on Smith and Carlos would have gone something like this: we send our pampered athletes to represent us internationally, and they do this? Like most nine-year-olds I accepted my parents’ politics unthinkingly.  Watching Smith and Carlos -- fists raised, eyes downcast, faces set in stony grimness as the “Star Spangled Banner” played -- I had a gut feeling of disbelief and anger. Those were the bad guys.

I guess there are plenty of Americans who see the West Point photo today and feel something similar. My own take couldn’t be more diametrically opposite. I love the photo. Partly it’s because I believe that we  need our soldiers to be more politically conscious, not less. But more fundamentally I feel pride, as an American, at what that image represents by way of extremely hard-fought gains won by black and female Americans. I don’t “read” the photo as defiant, but as celebratory; not as expressing contempt for tradition, but claiming continuity with tradition. Using the idiom of institutional portraiture from a time that excluded them, the women have taken a traditional form and filled it with new content – themselves. The message is, “We are Here.” The photo itself is a powerful metaphor for, and of, inclusion.

The Times elaborates, noting that the photo includes sixteen of the seventeen African-American women graduating this year – in a class of 1000. It quotes a female 2003 graduate of West Point who has been a mentor to some of the women in the photo.  “For them it’s not a sign of allegiance to a movement, it’s a sign that means unity and pride and sisterhood,” she comments. “That fist to them meant you and your sisters did what only a few people, male or female, have ever done in this country.”

So my gut take is simple: Yes! Show us that spirit – we need more of it!   




Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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