The first time Diaz Farrell saw the fist, it was on the end of her mother’s plastic afro pick.
“She’d, you know, be picking her hair and she’d be like, ‘black powerrr’,” the 20-year-old University of South Florida student said, imitating her mother’s playful tone. “I loved it so much.”
Years later, Farrell was on 22nd Street South in St. Petersburg when a group of protesters marched through the Deuces neighborhood waving signs and honking horns.
Farrell took a knee on the sidewalk and raised her fist high over her head, something she had never done prior to the protests that started with the death of George Floyd.
The gesture felt strong. Her mind went to her family, and their interactions with police.
The protesters, with their own fists up, saw Farrell. Her fist let them know she saw them, too.
“I’d never really thought about (the fist), you know, meaning wise, until you asked me,” Farrell said when questioned about what she meant by the gesture. “I just kind of knew.”
Maybe the fist does not require explanation. People simply feel it.
The fist is presented palm side out. It is strong, but it is not the threat of violence that a fist presented knuckles first would represent.
When University of South Florida professor Omotayo Jolaosho sees one, it takes her back to her childhood in Osogbo, Nigeria, where a teacher used a fist to demonstrate the adage, “united we stand, divided we fall.”
“With an open hand, the fingers are exposed and susceptible to external interference, and possible hurt,” she said, “but by uniting the fingers into a fist, it is hard to target just one finger. The whole hand is stronger in this unity.”
It’s also a physical representation of memory, Jolaosho said, traveling across generations on a current of black resistance.
Historically in the U.S., the fist is most often associated with the black power movement of the 1960s, which advocated self-esteem, economic empowerment and the creation of black political power.
Kwame Ture (then known as Stokely Carmichael) in a 1966 speech popularized “black power” as a slogan. In May 1968, fists were raised at the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., a multiracial effort conceived by Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination to call for human rights for everyone living in poverty, regardless of race.
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But it was that October, during the medal ceremony at the Olympics in Mexico City, that runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos defiantly raised black-gloved fists on the podium, and created one of the most iconic images in history. Their gesture would forever be known as a black power salute. They were swiftly kicked out of the Games.
Smith later wrote that he wore beads around his neck as a remembrance of African-American lynchings and stood in his socks to symbolize poverty. But he had thought of the fist as a “human rights salute.”
“It’s interesting how something can be interpreted in popular culture one way, but in fact, the progenitors of it had a different meaning,” said Richard Cooper, a professor at Widener University and expert in black history, speaking about the Olympics photo.
Five decades later, Smith and Carlos were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.
Fists have been raised often at protests around the world over the past month by black and non-black protesters.
The first time Nandi McMillan, 21, remembers holding up a fist was for a photo in high school when she was running for prom queen. She wanted to take advantage of a moment “when everyone could see me.” She did not think about it then like she does now.
McMillan held up a fist at a Tampa protest in late May.
“It’s about unity,” she said. “It may mean black power for some people, and it should mean that, but ‘we stand strong and together’ is mostly what it means to me today.”
McMillan said that, to her, white protesters are showing solidarity with the modern movement when they hold up a fist. “It means the same thing when they do it,” McMillan said, “but not exactly the same thing.”
Johnna Lantz, 51, raised a fist in protest for the first time alongside her husband and their 15-year-old daughter in Clearwater recently. She said it was to show allyship with Black Lives Matter.
But as a white person, “For one second, I questioned whether I might look like a faker, or a poser,” she said. “But I knew in my heart I wasn’t. So I released that apprehension, and I fully felt what it meant.”
Growing up in the ’70s, she was unaware of the fist’s political meanings and associated it with celebrating at high school football games.
“In some way, it felt the same (at the protest),” she said. “It felt like being on a team that is trying to win — not win against anyone, but win for our brothers and sisters.”
Evan Lawson, 25, who runs the black lifestyle site naveszn.com and also raised a fist in Tampa, said raising one feels like it’s “pushing up, like the rose that grew from concrete.”
Lawson said some people might see the fist as militant, “like, oh, there’s going to be an uprising or a revolution, in a scary way.” But they shouldn’t, she said.
Lawson believes “the revolution” is just a mindset of changing the system.
Fear of the black fist today may be an echo of fear of the black power movement 50 years ago. Racial tensions were already boiling over into violence when black power advocates shunned the idea of integration into white-dominated society, and split from the mainstream civil rights movement’s tactic of nonviolent resistance.
The fist became more controversial when it was adopted by the Black Panther Party, the militant black power group whose armed members did not discount the use of violence, and whose leaders openly admired Cuba and its communist system.
“There’s always multiple meanings to all this stuff,” Cooper said. But when you zoom in specifically on the gesture, “just the mere act of raising your fist as a sign of power was antithetical to what black people were allowed to ‘politely’ do in this country.”
Vietnam veterans contributed to the history, he said, when raising a fist became part of the dap – “what they called the black soul shake” – the elaborate greeting brought home by black soldiers returning from the war.
Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes were photographed together in 1971 raising a fist in interracial, feminist solidarity.
But a raised fist has been used in leftist social movements going back at least 170 years. Honoré Daumier’s painting The Uprising depicts a riot during the French revolution of 1848. A man leading the charge has a fist up.
Over his left shoulder is a working-class man, you can tell by his flat cap, and over his right shoulder is a middle-class man in a top hat.
Class differences and class consciousness had just started to emerge, said Richard Clay, a professor at Newcastle University in Tyne, England, who has studied 19th century France and symbolic power in art. And the fist is the symbol that unites them all.
“I think one of the reasons it’s lasted so long,” Clay said, “is that you can’t assimilate or control a symbol everyone can make with their hands.”
HOW TO SUPPORT: Ways to educate yourself and support black-owned businesses.
The fist was used by the United Workers of the World labor union in 1917 and by anti-fascists in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War. Students raised the fist in Paris in 1968 in mass protests against French President Charles de Gaulle.
If you’ve seen an image of the fist on a sign or a shirt, it’s almost certainly an uncredited version of a design by Frank Cieciorka, whose woodcut print of a disembodied black fist on a white background adorned posters for Stop the Draft Week in 1967. Cieciorka had seen the fist while participating in a socialist rally in San Francisco.
The movements might change, but the fist is almost always raised in solidarity, by people expressing dissent about an existing situation.
That could make it a strong symbol for binding together a modern movement made of many groups, and lacking the singular, famous leaders that defined the civil rights era.
University of South Florida professor Aisha Durham remembers seeing the fist as a child in the 1980s, when her mother marched with Jesse Jackson as her school district ended busing, a policy that effectively resegregated public schools.
The “risk” is different for white protesters who raise a fist, Durham said, since it won’t “be interpreted as threatening in the same way,” but she likes the act of solidarity, as long as it’s “coupled with concrete actions to support black life.”
Cooper, the Widener professor, spoke of concrete actions, too.
“So you’re not registered to vote? Okay, let’s put the fist back down and register to vote,” he said. “You can’t just raise a fist. You have to connect it to social action.”
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Tampa Bay Times protest coverage
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