The Choice

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By Brian Keepers

A picture paints a thousand words. A single photograph can tell a powerful story. This is certainly true of this iconic photograph of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

The two black men are U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith (left) and John Carlos (right) who took the gold and the bronze in the 200 meter race. 1968 was a tragic year in the battle for civil rights on American soil as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated.

Smith and Carlos took the podium barefoot, a symbol of solidarity with people of color who were trapped in poverty and oppression. The black gloves and raised fists were a gesture of the Black Panther’s cause. A small white badge on the left breast of their shirts read: “Olympic Project for Human Rights,” which represented a movement of athletes around the world who were standing up for equality and justice for people everywhere.

It was a bold and defiant act, what Smith and Carlos did in this moment with the world watching. And they paid for it. Smith and Carlos were immediately suspended from the American Olympic Team and expelled from the Olympic Village. They would not be allowed to race again. At home, these men and their families faced heavy repercussions and received multiple death threats. Eventually, they would be exonerated and celebrated as champions for human rights.

But what about the white guy in the photo–the man who won the silver medal? Who is he? And is he part of the story? While pictures can reveal, they can also deceive. Most people don’t know that there is more to this story. I didn’t know until a few weeks ago when a friend shared with me a couple articles about the “forgotten third man” in the photo.

His name is Peter Norman. He was an unknown Australian sprinter who seemingly came out of nowhere and won the silver medal in the 200 meter race. The final heat was an amazing race. But what happened on the medal podium was even more remarkable. This is the part of the story you don’t immediately see in the picture.

In 1968, it wasn’t only the U.S. who was experiencing racial injustice. Tension and protests simmered in the streets of Australia following strict apartheid restrictions on non-white immigration and discriminatory laws against aboriginal people. Some of which forced the adoption of aboriginal children to white families (a practice that continued until the 1970’s).

The two Americans asked Norman if he believed in human rights. Norman said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman was part of the Salvation Army, and he said he had a strong faith in God. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and he said, ‘I’ll stand with you,’” remembers Carlos. “I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”

When Norman heard they were going to make this gesture of defiance on the podium, with their badges and black gloves, he asked if they had another badge. They didn’t, but he scrambled and found one to borrow from another athlete.

Then, together, they walked out on the field and stepped onto the podium. “I couldn’t see what was happening,” Norman recounts, “[but] I had known they had gone through with their plans when a voice in the crowd sang the American anthem but then faded to nothing. The stadium went quiet.”

I already alluded to the fallout that Smith and Carlos faced. But there was also a cost for Norman. Even though he would remain for years one of the fastest sprinters in his country (still holding the Australian record today for the 200 meter), the Australian Olympic Team refused to let him race ever again. His entire family was ostracized and treated as outcasts in their own country. No one would hire him, and he eventually found a job as a P.E. teacher and a butcher. But he was injured and contracted gangrene, which sent him spiraling into depression and alcoholism.

For years, the authorities in his country promised to treat him and his family differently if he would only condemn Carlos and Smith and apologize for the way he had disgraced his homeland. They even promised him he could compete in the Olympics again.

But Norman refused. He wouldn’t condemn these men or what they had all done. He stood his ground.

Norman died suddenly from a heart attack on October 9, 2006 without his country ever apologizing for the way they had treated him. The Australian Parliament finally issued a formal apology in 2012, but it was too little and too late.

2016 Summer Olympics3At his funeral, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Norman’s friends since that fateful moment in 1968, each delivered a moving eulogy and led the way as his pall bearers. Norman had stood with them in life; they would stand with him in death.

“He paid the price with his choice, “explained Tommie Smith. “It wasn’t just a simple gesture to help us, it was HIS fight. He was a white man, a white Australian man among two men of color, standing up in the moment of victory, all in the name of the same thing.”

Norman made his choice. A courageous choice. A choice that demanded sacrifice. And he never regretted it. What choices are in front of us today? Individually? As a church? As separate communities and a collective nation?

When asked why he made this choice, here is what Norman said in his own words (captured in the documentary film “Salute”):

I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man. There was a social injustice that I couldn’t do anything for from where I was, but I certainly hated it. It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance. On the contrary. I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it.

2016 Summer Olympics4

A picture paints a thousand words. A single photograph can tell a powerful story.

It is for a time such as this that God is calling the church to be a picture of the reconciling love of Christ before a watching world.

“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death the hostility through it.”       – Ephesians 2:15-16

I’m indebted to two key articles for the information and pictures in this blog post: “The White Man in that Photo” by Riccardo Gazzaniga (http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/the-white-man-in-that-photo/) and “The Third Man: The Forgotten Black Power Hero”by James Montague (http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/24/sport/olympics-norman-black-power/).

Brian Keepers is the Minister of Preaching and Congregational Leadership at Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.

Comments 12

  1. Carlos and Smith, fists raised, is a picture I will never, ever forget. You’ve bountifully added to the story and the image. Thanks!!

  2. What a story! I was and am a huge Tommie Smith fan, but did not know about this, their relationship with Norman, their confiding in him. They were criticized for showing disrespect to Norman in their protest. Thank you so much.

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