Social media has erupted over a photo of a group of black cadets at West Point posed with raised fists in the manner of Black Power activists in the 1960s, bringing the elite military academy unwanted attention over its struggles with racial diversity and its strict rules against political activity.
The 16 cadets, who a West Point spokesman said in a statement are members of the class of 2016 and are under investigation for the picture, posed in traditional uniforms and with some holding sabers in what’s known as an “Old Corps” photo that harks back to the academy’s two-century history. In a twist, each woman holds a fist in the air, a sign some have taken as political support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
That would be a problem, as the academy and military as a whole have a broad policy against members taking part in politics aside from voting.
But some have suggested that the women took inspiration not from black revolutionaries but from pop culture — specifically, Beyonce, who used the salute during her controversial Super Bowl halftime show performance of the song “Formation.” Others have said the women were simply celebrating their upcoming graduation.
Although the raised fist may be best known in the United States for its association with the Black Power movement, its origins and use are much broader, from ancient Assyria to the Spanish Civil War. Over the years, the symbol has simultaneously been used by leftists, white nationalists and black activists — all for very different purposes.
Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939
During the brutal civil war in Spain between leftists loyal to the Republican government and the wealthy and powerful Nationalists, many Republicans adopted the fisted salute. Nationalists, meanwhile, used the Roman salute, similar to that used by Italian Fascists and German Nazis.
Stokely Carmichael, 1967
Trinidadian American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, later known for his support of Pan-Africanism, popularized the phrase “black power” in the 1960s. A Howard University graduate who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Carmichael described black power in a 1967 book by the same name as “a call for black people in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community … to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.”
FOR THE RECORD
May 11, 3:12 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said Carmichael was a graduate of Harvard. He graduated from Howard University.
”When you talk of black power, you talk of building a movement that will smash everything Western civilization has created,” Carmichael said in a later speech.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith, 1968 Mexico City Olympics
Perhaps the best-known image of raised fists is of John Carlos and Tommie Smith who won third and first place, respectively, in the 200-meter race at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
After receiving their medals and turning to hear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Carlos and Smith raised black-gloved fists in the air, shocking Olympic organizers who had championed keeping the games apolitical. They wore no shoes and black socks to represent black poverty, while Smith had a black scarf on his neck, which he later said was a symbol for black pride.
“If I win, I am an American, not a black American,” Smith said at a news conference afterward. “But if I did something bad, then they would say ‘a Negro.’ We are black and we are proud of being black.”
Source: Los Angeles Times | Jaweed Kaleem