Rob Mitchell: ‘The Raised Fist’

The raised fist

By Rob Mitchell
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.

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.

In May 1968, fists were raised at the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. effort conceived by Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination to call for human rights for everyone living in poverty, regardless of race.

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. During the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City,  runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos  raised black-gloved fists on the podium.  Their gesture would forever be known as a “black power salute”. They were swiftly kicked out of the Games.

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.
Unlike in an open hand, where the fingers are exposed and susceptible to external interference, and possible hurt, 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 as American as “united we stand, divided we fall.”

One of the reasons it’s lasted so long as a symbol of unity and struggle is that you can’t assimilate or control a symbol everyone can make with their hands. Movements might change, the issues of discontent may vary, 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; the raised fist itself becomes the binding force of leadership. It should not be used indiscriminately. Raising a fist does not make one a leader. Those who have been conditioned by social media to respond only to symbols and cues may be led to slaughter as so many sheep following the sound of a bell.

But symbols alone lead nowhere. You can’t just raise a fist. You have to connect it to social action. One must have a clear and workable plan and a vision of what they wish to accomplish.You cannot whip a crowd into a frenzy of anger and angst without having first formulated a course of action. Think before you act.