While competitive sport isn’t of interest to me sometimes the politics surrounding the events is interesting. And strong statements are made. Recently American football players have been kneeling during the nation anthem. Adam Goodes in Australia performed a war dance during a game a few years ago.
On Tuesday October 16 a human rights summit in Melbourne will be held in the name of a man who’s involvement in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics Black Power Salute protest.
His name is Peter Norman, the tribute below written by musician and family friend Les Thomas.
How many of my friends know the full story behind this statue?
I imagine many would know it’s a tribute to the famous Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, easily one of the most iconic moments in sports history.
Tommie Smith stands at first place on the podium, and John Carlos stands on third. Who was on second? A lot fewer know the answer to that in the United States, but a growing number of people are now aware of the name of Australian silver medallist Peter Norman thanks to Matt Norman’s excellent documentary Salute that came out ten years ago, as well as more recent efforts to have Norman’s human rights, anti-racist and sporting contribution recognised in a statue of his own in his home town of Melbourne.
The reason why he’s absent from the statue in San Jose, California, as I understand is that he wanted the spot kept clear so that others who wanted to stand in solidarity could do so. That’s how his self-described “brother from another mother” tells it beautifully in this speech that I encourage everyone to watch for a full sense of what happened
I count myself as very lucky to have known Peter Norman, because he taught alongside my dad at Williamstown Tech. He came from a Salvation Army family, the same organisation that offered community and support to my Black grandmothers when other churches shunned them.
When I interviewed him about the salute in the ’90s, I was in awe of him and his fellow athletes’ courage, remembering that this took place in the same year that Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated, when the new wave of the Black Power movement was on the rise.
He and his brothers knew full well the risks they faced, but they stared them down, united as one when the time came for action. And in the long decades of punishment, rejection and ostracization that followed, they maintained their conviction regardless of the cost to their careers, morally, financially or otherwise. I hope I and the other people I call brothers, sisters and comrades would do the same if the situation called for it.
Norman was the first person to acknowledge and own his relatively protected and privileged place as a white man in a racist world, hence not seeking out glory, but putting the rightness of the cause above all else. All three athletes recognised the power of cross-racial action and solidarity, with due prominence and rightful leadership from the Black athletes.
The large part of the reason Norman saw fit to stand in unity with Smith and Carlos was his awareness of the Apartheid-like racism that pervaded Australia, something we’re still fighting to this day, hopefully while drawing on inspiration from those like Smith, Carlos, Norman, and the legions of grassroots people and campaigners, not least First Nations warriors that we are only beginning to give proper, recognition and historical understanding for.
Where and how are we going to adequately pay tribute to Wurundjeri leader William Barak, for example? I don’t know, but it has to be done right, with the right blessings from the right people. I feel the more in touch we are with our rich history of resistance, the greater our chances of making a difference in the here and now.
In Melbourne, I’m very grateful to have offered a song that honours the Palawa/Pakana freedom fighters Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyhenner. The very same stalwarts who spent more than ten years on securing a permanent marker for them are also working on the Peter Norman Commemoration, most notably Dr Joseph Toscano. Next Tuesday at the Peter Norman Human Rights Summit I’m looking forward to sharing a new song that honours Norman, Smith, Carlos while reminding people to “Keep your eyes on the prize” in the struggle against the ongoing injustice of racism at every level.
So thank you for reading this. Special thanks to those doing amazing organising work, and I hope to see you at the event if you can make it. United we stand.
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