Why the raised fist is so powerful

Story highlights

  • Amy Bass: When Olympians raised fists at medal ceremony in 1968, they were forced out
  • She says why West Point cadet women raised fists unclear, but gesture has enduring political power
  • Bass: With black women underrepresented at West Point, it's not hard to guess what it meant to them

Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, is the author of "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete." As the supervisor of NBC's Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)When American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists over their heads during the medal ceremony at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968, they embodied much of the political turbulence of the era. The photo of the two -- heads bowed, arms outstretched, gold and bronze medals hanging around their respective necks -- became an instant classic, one of the best-known images of the 20th century.

Smith and Carlos had an entire movement behind their fists. The Olympic Project for Human Rights, taking many cues from the civil rights movements then sweeping across much of the country, had threatened a black boycott of Mexico City. While the boycott failed to materialize, Smith and Carlos took their own stand on behalf of equal rights in the United States.
    Amy Bass
    Last month at West Point, a group of graduating cadets -- 16 African-American women, to be exact -- appropriated the symbolism of the raised fist for their own. Dressed in ceremonial uniform in front of Nininger Hall for what is called an "Old Corps" photo, these women gave a new twist to a cherished graduation ritual that reaches back to a time when sepia was the norm, rather than an Instagram filter.
    But in striking such a pose before Nininger -- the only remaining building from the "Old Central Barracks" -- the women kicked off a controversy, first playing out on Twitter and Facebook and now in the news media. Some, including West Point alums, support the women and their stance. Others, however, have condemned them for playing politics -- making common cause with the Black Lives Matter movement, according to some accusations -- while in uniform.
    Cadets are, according to the Army Command Policy, allowed to "register, vote, and express their personal opinion on political candidates and issues," but they are not allowed to do so "as a representative of the Army." On April 28, West Point officially opened an inquiry into the matter.
    Why the uproar? The raised fist has a long history with a variety of political connotations, but most roads lead to Black Power stances of the late 1960s. That Black Power still strikes fear into the hearts of some shows just how commanding its imagery is.
    In that era, as mainstream civil rights movements sometimes gave way to more militant actions, the raised fist became associated with the Black Power politics of groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and, even more notably, the Black Panthers.
    More recently, Beyoncé drew attention (when doesn't she?) during this year's Super Bowl halftime show when she and her dancers raised fists high overhead during the performance of "Formation." The dancers' black berets, boots and leather costumes left little question as to the Black Power context they intended to evoke.
    This performance sparked a weak attempt by some to protest NFL headquarters in New York, with claims that she had used the sacred space of the Super Bowl to highlight militants such as Black Lives Matter and the Panthers. The police showed up to keep the planned protest calm, and members of the so-called Bey Hive -- Beyoncé's hardcore fans -- showed up to protest the protest. But no one else came, leaving Beyoncé to make lemonade from lemons, selling "Boycott Beyoncé" shirts on her Formation tour.
    Time and place matters, too. An athlete who crosses the finish line and triumphantly punches the sky is, no question, celebrating. But if that athlete does so while standing on a victory dais while the flag is raised and the national anthem plays, it can be seen as an act of defiance, rebellion -- even treason -- rather than a moment of freedom of expression.
    Indeed, the ambiguity of the raised fist is partly why it remains so powerful. In 1968, Smith and Carlos had no need to hold a sign with a slogan about their cause. In the moment their fists took center stage in front of hundreds of millions of people, silently denouncing racism as people sat and watched, the American flag, the Olympic rings, and "The Star Spangled Banner" providing the backdrop.
    The consequences were severe. The U.S. Olympic Committee, under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, revoked their credentials, forcing them out of the Olympic Village to return home. Sportswriters, athletes and fans debated whether there was any place for politics in sports.
    Some concluded that the duo abused the Olympic space that had been granted them, while others understood that disrupting something like a medal ceremony was an ideal way to get attention for a political priority. "It's a free country," said four-time gold medalist Al Oerter at the time. "Perhaps if I felt as strongly about it as they do, I'd do the same thing."
    Many have appropriated the raised fist since then. Flash forward to 1995, when disgruntled baseball fans disconnected it from Black Power to express their disillusionment with the ending of the strike. At Shea Stadium, three fans wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the word GREED took to the field during the fourth inning of a Mets-Giants matchup, throwing 150 one-dollar bills at the players in an Abbie Hoffman-inspired protest. They concluded their action by standing on second base, clenched fists raised overhead. The crowd went nuts.
    The women in the West Point photograph have remained silent about the reason behind their action. But since African-American women represent a mere 1.7% of a graduating class of almost 1,000 cadets, it might not be too hard to guess what they were after.
    Because sometimes an image such as this one, using a symbol as powerful as a clenched fist held overhead, is the best way to tell a story, ensuring that people will talk about it for a very long time.