James Giago Davies: Native activism must embrace all relations

The following opinion by James Giago Davies appeared in the Native Sun News. All content © Native Sun News.

Gold medalist Tommie Smith, (center) and bronze medalist John Carlos (right) at the 1968 Summer Olympics wearing Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. The third athlete is silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia, who wore an OPHR badge as a sign of support. Photo from Wikipedia

Why First American activism failed
You can’t win a war without allies
By James Giago Davies

On Oct., 15, 1968, in the opening heats at Mexico City, Australian Peter Norman broke the Olympic record for 200 meters. He did not have long to celebrate, because in the quarterfinals both Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the USA broke Norman’s record. Norman could not know that his destiny would be inextricably linked to the subsequent controversial actions of these two Americans, or how high a price he would pay for supporting those actions.

In the final, Norman exploded from the blocks, and digging for all he was worth, came out of the turn with the lead, but down the stretch long, lanky Tommie Smith pulled away and John Carlos passed Norman as well. Norman reached deep down inside and put out one of the greatest efforts in Olympic history, as he caught Carlos, and leaned past him at the tape to take the silver medal.

Norman had run a personal best 20.06, an Australian record which stands to this day, almost half a century later, an eternity in sprint athletics. This time was over a tenth of a second faster than the Olympic record Norman had set the day before. He should be one of the most celebrated athletes in Australian history, but he is not.

Norman was angrily reprimanded by the Australian Olympic Committee, and upon his return home, the press ignored him, and over the next few years, despite repeatedly qualifying for the 1972 Olympic 200 meters, rather than send Norman, the Australians, for the first time in history, elected to send no one.

Raised a devout Christian, Norman had been asked by John Carlos before the medal ceremony if he believed in God, if he believed in human rights, and moved by the eloquence, the passion, the righteousness of their cause, Norman offered his support for what Carlos and Tommie Smith were about to do.

He did two more things, though, that would make matters worse. First, he borrowed an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) patch from another American, an Olympic rower named Paul Hoffman, the same patch Carlos and Smith wore. The OPHR had been formed a year earlier by activist academic Harry Edwards, to protest racial segregation, which was still practiced in the USA at the time.

Carlos and Smith planned to wear black gloves, and raise a fist, during the medal ceremony, but Carlos forgot his gloves so Norman suggested they split Smith’s gloves between them. On the podium, Smith raises his right fist, Carlos raises his left.

For his actions, animosity against Norman ran so deep back home he wasn’t even invited by the Australian Olympic committee to the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney. The USA had to extend an invitation. Ostracized by a country that should have honored him, Norman did what so many Lakota have done with their lives, he became an addict, to booze and pain killers. He died of heart failure in 2006, at the age of 64.

Back in 1968, the talking heads on TV all said the fist salute was about “Black Power,” but when I asked my mother about it, she said, no, it was about racial injustice. Clearly, that’s what White Peter Norman thought, why would he give a rip about Black Power?

Here in South Dakota, similar activism created huge turmoil during the early 1970’s; Wounded Knee was occupied, the Custer County Courthouse was burned. Maybe if a couple of Lakota guys could run like Smith and Carlos they would have raised red gloves during the 1972 Olympics.

The objectives sought by Smith and Carlos have been achieved, segregation is history, although institutionalized racism, Wasicu privilege, and Wasicu denial racism even exists, continue to make life difficult for Lakota in Indian Country. Few of the objectives American Indian Movement activism sought have been achieved, and the reason for this failure provides us with a roadmap for future success, if we are egalitarian enough to see it, and enlightened enough to support it.

Civil rights were achieved not because Blacks got angry and violent, but because they were able to galvanize a broad coalition. Millions of Blacks marching with millions of Whites and Hispanics were more than an archaic social order could fend off. Although, not supplanted, power and privilege were forced to the bargaining table. The raised black fists of Carlos and Smith clearly did more harm than good to the cause that prompted the action, but contained in that harmful reaction, were all the elements that justified the action, the injustice, the double standard, the hate. We see the ugly nature of that reaction clearly today.

First American activism failed because it sought to restore past relationship, it sought to separate itself from a dominant culture, to form sovereign nations, in a country where there is no room for them, physically or philosophically, and to compel reparation, when if that reparation is taken to a logical, just conclusion, the gross national economy could not pay it off. It was myopic and provincial and doomed to failure, and it still is.

Only by stepping into the 21st century, by embracing humanity as one people —Mitakuye Oyasin — by enlisting the support and passions of a broad-based coalition committed to peaceable yet earnest protest, will the vital parts of traditional First American culture be spared from the “ashbin of history.”

On Oct. 11, 2012, the Australian Parliament passed a formal apology: “... for the treatment he received upon his return to Australia and the failure to fully recognize his inspirational role ...” Without dominant culture participation from people like Peter Norman, there will be no saving Lakota culture, people willing to pay any price to do what is right, because as John Carlos said when he looked into Norman’s eyes, all he saw was love.

(James Giago Davies can be reached at skindiesel@msn.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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