The U.S. military fully integrated during the Vietnam War. However, racial equality only existed on paper.
In my novel If You Walk Long Enough, black soldier Joe Terrell, serving at the same time as novel protagonist Reid Holcombe, reflects on his experience in Nam. In Saigon bars, base camps, R&R beaches, and duty rosters, Joe found soldiers were generally segregated along the same lines as back home.
Joe and Reid banter about their experiences while cutting blossoms off tobacco, usually called topping. Joe talks about a clenched fist, held overhead, as gesture of greeting and solidarity among black soldiers in Vietnam.
As a symbol, the raised fist dates to the ancient Assyrians. It has wound its way down through time among various groups as a sign of solidarity, strength, resistance, pride, and unity. The raised fist, also used by the Black Panther Party in the sixties, reentered the world stage during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City as a result of the 200-meter track event winners—Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, John Carlos—and their nonviolent protest.
When the three winners of that track event mounted the Olympic awards podium, and the strands of the “Star Spangled Banner” began, Gold Medalist Tommie Smith and Bronze Medalist John Carlos, both black, bowed their heads and a raised black-gloved fist above their heads. The stadium grew eerily quiet. For a while.
Australian Silver Medalist Peter Norman stood with Smith and Carlos. He wore a human-rights badge on his jacket in support of their cause, as well as for human rights endeavors in Australia. He did not raise his fist, only stood in respectful silence.
When these two black athletes and one white Aussie stepped down from the podium, the eerie silence broke into deafening boos and screams, reverberating across the stadium.
The gestures used that day were not haphazard, but well-reasoned and considered. Smith raised his right fist, Pride, and Carlos his left, Unity. Each wore one glove, the pair of gloves linked them as a whole.
Both carried their shoes, walking to the podium shoeless in black socks to represent black poverty. The wearing of a scarf and beads symbolized the “strange fruit” of the South—ubiquitous lynching. Carlos stood with his jacket unzipped recognizing working people, black and white, and wearing a human-rights badge.
Earlier that year in New York, Carlos had come face to face with Martin Luther King. Carlos resolved to call attention to the poverty, housing conditions, and racism of Americans through a nonviolent protest while competing at the Olympics. He won a gold medal and used that win as a protest platform. The clenched and raised fist worked as if it were a stone thrown into a pond, rippling out in concentric circles.
Over the following months and years, the three medalists endured death threats, harassment, loss of income, and career discrimination because of their actions.
Ultimately, these three athletes carved out lives and careers while holding a forever place in sports annals and political history.
A statue memorializing the event can be found in the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History, Sports Galleries.
Today, a continuing symbolic gesture, the raised fist mirrors the cultural complexity and political landscape of our times.