Media History Exchange, 2018 Joint Journalism and Communication History Conference

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A critical analysis of newspaper coverage of the raised fist as a symbol of the Black Power Movement from 1966-1969
Thomas C Anderson

Last modified: 2017-11-25


The 1960s was a decade of change and activism in the U.S. that allowed for black Americans to rise to the social forefront, gaining significant ground in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. However, the legislation did not instantaneously make the country a better place to live for Black Americans. Further activism on behalf of black Americans was necessary to establish equality beyond legal requirements. From this need arose the ‘Black Power’ movement. During this movement, symbols emerged from activist groups that contained their messages in non-verbal form.

The most prominent of these symbols was a fist raised in the air, which was not unique to the Black Power movement, as it was used previously in the U.S. by labor unions in the early 1900s. But, the raised fist was adopted and successfully implemented as a symbol of the Black Power movement. The use of the raised fist by Black Power movement organizers and sympathizers contained a message to be sent and received in public forums.

Once the symbol became acknowledged and attributed to the movement, journalists recorded the symbol’s appearance at public events, which were often political. Reporters gave a lens that eventually shaped the perception of the symbol, defining public outlook on the movement itself as the two became synonymous. This study examines how journalists reported on the symbol’s usage, which undoubtedly helped shape public outlook on the Black Power movement.[1]

Building on the work of scholars such as Jane Rhodes[2] and Peniel Joseph[3], this research takes a critical look at how journalists reported on black-centric concerns post-Civil Rights movement through the symbolism of the raised fist. Specifically, this research analyzes newspaper articles and pictures referencing the raised fist from its first appearance as a Black Power symbol in 1966, to 1969 when its meaning(s) was/were firmly established.

During this three-year time frame, key events assisted in shaping perception of the symbol: The Chicago Freedom Movement of 1966 when the symbol first appeared, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968, the Presidential Election of 1968, and the 1968 Summer Olympics. A drastic shift in exposure occurred after the 1968 Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their iconic black-gloved fists on the victor’s podium, which was catalyzed by the upcoming election. The election included an avid white supremacist candidate, Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had many black fists raised in opposition to his candidacy, and a conservative law and order candidate, Richard Nixon, seeking to appeal to the Deep South that was still hostile to civil rights for black Americans.

[1] Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. New York: Knopf, 2007.

[2] Jane Rhodes, Framing the Black Panther: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon. New York and London: The New Press, 2007

[3] Peniel  E. Joseph, The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era. CRC Press, 2006; Peniel E. Joseph, Stokely: A Life. Basic Civitas Books, 2014

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