Thursday, August 15, 2013

The 68 Olympics: remembering Peter Norman


LtoR Norman, Smith, Carlos
 I am so lucky to have grown up during the 60’s.  What an incredible decade. The colonial revolutions were driving out direct occupation anyway.  Ten million French workers struck and occupied factories.  The music and art scene was flourishing. The Women’s rights movement was in full swing as was the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers in the US, influencing the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.

I wouldn’t say I was consciously political but even the blues that I listened to was political as while Big Bill Broonzy or T Bone Walker weren’t known as political figures, if you were black and from the US and sang about life, you sang about politics, racism, injustice, lynchings (Strange Fruit).  On of my favorite singers, Nina Simone, didn’t pull too many punches. I was just a bit juvenile that’s all, but it did sink in.

Like many young working class guys at the time though, I was a bit afraid of the likes of Malcolm X and some aspects of the Panthers, mostly because the media demonized them but I also didn’t understand the whole situation and hadn’t yet been introduced to the political ideas that would have helped me understand more.  Malcolm X didn’t help with some of his comments about white people, putting us all in the same boat. And we should not fail to recognize that Malcolm X was killed when he was moving towards working class unity and socialist ideas, not when he was attacking white people as whites---all the same.

In 1968 at the Mexico Olympics, the two hundred meters gold medal was won by the American Tommie Smith and another American John Carlos won the bronze.  Smith and Carlos were both black.  On the podium with them was the silver medal winner, the Australian Peter Norman.  Smith and Carlos had decided to make a statement at the medal ceremony.  They raised their fists in the air, wore no shoes to protest poverty and beads to protest lynchings. Smith and Carlos paid for their actions with a suspension and removal from the Olympic village. They were vilified by many who said that their actions brought disgrace on the US and they received death threats as well. 

I came to recognize them for the heroic figures they were.  But I remember back then seeing the white guy Norman standing there and I wondered what it must be like for him.  After all, wasn’t this black power salute an attack on all white people? I was sure that the black guys would never have included him in their plans. But they did. It was only recently I found out that Smith and Carlos had discussed their plan with Norman after the race. Norman suggested they wear the black gloves which is why Smith is raising his right fist and Carlos his left.

They asked Norman if he believed in human rights and if he believed in god.  He told them he would stand with them and wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his chest in solidarity. It is one of the most powerful scenes of the 20th century, these two guys standing there, fists in the air, heads down and Norman with them. Norman said afterwards, "I believe every man is born equal." 

Smith and Carlos were demonized in the media and suffered racial abuse and name calling on top of their suspension for what they did. Norman’s solidarity cost him his athletic career. He was excluded from the Australian team at the 1972 Olympics despite running qualifying times. The Australian media airbrushed him from history despite being one of 
Smith and Carlos lead pallbearers at Norman's funeral
that country’s greatest athletes. This is how they react to a young man who said afterwards,

“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. That was just social injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from where I was, but I certainly abhorred it.


Avery Brundage, the IOC chairman attacked these men because he didn’t agree that political statements belonged in the Olympics.  This is the man who was at the 1936 Olympics as the president of the US Olympic Committee and raised no objection to the Nazi salute.

Peter Norman died in 2006 from a heart attack.  He had suffered with depression and alcoholism. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were pallbearers and spoke at the funeral, Carlos told Australian television:

"Peter Norman let me know that regardless of what your ethnic background is it has nothing to do with your principles".

And on his treatment he said:

"I think the pressures that the nation put on him and the disrespect that they showed him, I think it wounded him. "I think he was hurting and I don't think he ever recovered from the hurt that they put upon him. Unnecessarily hurt."

In August 2012, the Australian government which had racial exclusionary laws similar to South Africa’s at the time of the famous salute, finally issued an official apology to Norman and his family who were harassed and persecuted for his actions.

I am sure there are many people that know this already but I didn’t so I felt a need to comment on it.  I have to say as I write about this I feel very emotional about these three people.  What courage they had to do what they did. The civil rights movement and actions like the protest in Mexico halted the most openly brutal racist practices in the US including blatantly racist laws, but the institutionalized racism of the system is still very much with us.

For Norman, it would have been easy to step aside, to avoid the confrontation but he didn't, and there’s no way any of them would not have understood the response that would follow the protest.

As I think about it, all those who are not directly victims of the cause they stand up to defend but know it has to be done no matter the cost, are heroic figures.  The state and its minions have dragged an apology from Manning after years of physical and mental torture, maybe his lawyer said it might knock a few years from his sentence, I don’t know.  But he has nothing to apologize for; neither do Smith, Carlos and Norman.

There’s some good people out there.

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