An Open Letter to Middle Class People, Especially Middle Class White People

August 17, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

I recently came across a documentary, Salute, that focuses on the courageous action taken by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Tommie and John are not the main subject of the movie. The third person on the dais that day is the main focus—he was “the white guy,” Peter Norman of Australia, who finished second behind Tommie Smith in one of the greatest races in human history. As we work for an October 24 outpouring that will rock this country, no, the whole world, I urge you to find that movie somewhere, on Netflix or cable TV, YouTube, Amazon, somewhere, just find it, carve out a couple of hours, and watch it. Discuss it. It matters. It’s an example of what difference you can make.

Rise Up October 24th logo

You see, right now, as you read this, we are at a point in history where what you do matters immensely for the future of humanity. Now, like then, the struggle of Black people against this genocidal, spirit-killing system is central to our time. Carl Dix’s statement in the aftermath of the Charleston, South Carolina massacre is to the point: “Everyone should understand that there is no middle ground in this struggle where people can be neutral while this system grinds away, crushing the bodies and breaking the spirits of those on the bottom of society. If you have an ounce of humanity, you must add your voice to those demanding that horrors like these STOP! Right Now!” This coming October, step up, be an active part of Rise Up October. It’s time to put something on the line and do something that can and must change the course of history.

Peter Norman found himself in exactly that position at the end of that 200-meter race in 1968. If you never heard of Peter Norman, that’s because this history has been hidden. Well, now you have heard of him, and here’s why he matters. Without going into all the details of Salute, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, in various interviews, some with Peter Norman, make the point that for a while after the games, they had no idea what happened to Peter. The two were vilified and ostracized, they couldn’t find work. Not even in a car wash, a job Tommie Smith was fired from. John Carlos was so harassed his wife was driven to commit suicide. As this was going on in the U.S., Peter Norman was the subject of a campaign being orchestrated by the leading bodies of Australian athletics, and he also was ostracized, turned into an outcast. Peter’s “crime”? Not turning on Tommie and John, but supporting their action. Understand that Peter Norman was, even 40 years after the 1968 Olympics, the fastest human being ever born in the Southern hemisphere! I say that to emphasize that the authorities, in turning Peter into an outcast, vilified someone who would have been a national hero, and they did this to make a point—don’t you dare stand with the oppressed! But stand he did, and it mattered greatly to the oppressed what Peter did, and toward the end of Salute this is brought out very movingly.

The demonstration by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics literally sent shock waves around the world! I was a runner back then, and closely following the much-discussed possible boycott by Black athletes. Like Bob Avakian put it, at first I didn’t get the importance of their clenched-fist salute while standing on the victory dais and I’d wanted the Black athletes to boycott the 1968 Olympics. And as BA put it, boy was I wrong!

Salute shows two different views on the demonstration by Tommie and John. It includes pieces of an interview with Larry Questad, another sprinter on the U.S. team, a white athlete. Questad’s take on that moment? “I was just [pauses, facial look of disgust] sick... I just think that what people should think about that 200-meter race in Mexico City is that Tommie broke the world record by three-tenths of a second and it was a tremendous event. There haven’t been too many of those things where someone would make such a quantum leap on a world record, and when I talk to people and we talk about track and field and we talk about 200 meters in Mexico City, I have yet, in all these years, have anyone tell me what they thought of it was it was a tremendous performance that he put on ... all they talk about is the black fist, and that’s a crime to me ... if they hadn’t done that they’d have been happier, healthier, wealthier, and been more influential in their community than they have been with what they’re doing now...”

Well, that’s the “look out for yourself” viewpoint, which we’re all too familiar with.

Statue of Tommie Smitha nd John Carlos at San Francisco State UniversityStatue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at San Jose State University. (Photo: Trackinfo - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Norman's challenge at the statuePlaque at the staute with Peter Norman's challenge.

Here’s the truth: speaking at the memorial service in Australia for Peter Norman, John Carlos said: “ guys lost a great soldier. Peter’s a human you can’t claim as your own. You can’t claim Peter Norman and say ‘he’s ours.’ Because Peter belongs to the world.” Tommie Smith said “ know, Peter means rock. He left a legacy to stand on. Stand on that rock. Be proud. My friend, Peter Norman, the humanitarian, who believed that right can never be wrong.”

Peter Norman: “It’s been said on a number of occasions that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance. On the contrary, I’ve got to confess that I was rather proud to be part of the action that they took.

On the campus of San Jose State University there stands a beautiful statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Peter did not want to be part of the statue, but instead, as John Carlos once related in a radio interview on KPFK with Davey D, Peter wanted a plaque there that challenges people, and it is there and reads: “Fellow Athlete Australian Peter Norman Stood Here—Take a Stand.”

So, to you reading this, I say: NOW is the time to take up the challenge from Peter Norman. The stakes are high now, as they were then. You can go through life, be a Larry Questad, and live a life of comfort and be a disgusting human being, gorging on the spoils of this empire. Or you can do what Peter Norman did—stand shoulder to shoulder with the most oppressed, stand for something that matters! You will be part of making this a better world—for that you will be loved, and you will make a difference!



Volunteers Needed... for and Revolution

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

REVOLUTION AND RELIGION The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion, A Dialogue Between Cornel West & Bob Avakian
BA Speaks: Revolution Nothing Less! Bob Avakian Live
BAsics from the Talks and Writings of Bob Avakian
Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal)
WHAT HUMANITY NEEDS Revolution, and the New Synthesis of Communism
You Don't Know What You Think You 'Know' About... The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation Its History and Our Future Interview with Raymond Lotta
The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need