Digital pebbles

Clarke Mulder Purdie on PR, media and other random topics

Can actions really speak louder than words…?

Posted by Edward Mather on July 10, 2008

Watching BBC Four’s programme ‘Black Power Salute’ late last night (repeated tonight at 0045), I was struck by the overriding sense that this one isolated, and essentially unplanned, gesture made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos sent shockwaves throughout the world that achieved more than a million propagandist pamphlets ever could.

 

A brief potted history: At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning gold and bronze medals respectively, raised their black-gloved hands, and stood shoeless, with heads bowed atop the podium while the Star Spangled Banner played. The act was done to show support for the Black Panther movement, and to decry the appalling treatment of America’s black population.

 

This act was unplanned, and only decided at the last minute, yet the subsequent effect it had across the globe was monumental, becoming front page news around the world, and is now acknowledged as an essential part of the Civil Rights Movement.

 

During the programme last night it was also revealed that the Australian runner Peter Norman who finished in second, athough appearing disinterested and almost awkward in the iconic photo of the act, was in fact also an integral part of the scene. Despite being a white athlete, he asked for an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, that he wore on the podium, as recognition of how he was sympathetic to the other athletes’ cause. The impact of his act is proven by his subsequent treatment – he was ostracised by the Australian media and banned from the ’72 Olympics despite his unquestionable talent.

 

The point I would like to make is about the vital importance, and dramatic impact that actions can have, but only when done correctly. If we look at the recent pro-Tibet protests that have been dominating this year’s Olympics, the images we have seen are of violent protesters attempting to hijack the torch-bearers. When confronted by such images, it seems hard to feel sympathy for their cause, and you have to question what it will actually achieve. This is in stark contrast to the genuine impact of the peaceful and silent protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos – a gesture that was deafeningly loud throughout the world and truly monumental for the Civil Rights Movement in America.

 

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