Oped: The clenched fist

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Michael G. Long, left, and Yohuru Williams, right. (Courtesy Photos)

Submitted by Michael G. Long and Yohuru Williams

Time for Biden to Raise the Fist of Protest

Incoming presidents have often added symbolic flare to their Inauguration Day swearing-in ceremonies. Theodore Roosevelt wore a ring with a lock of Lincoln’s hair, while Barack Obama took the oath of office with his hand on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible. If President-elect Biden wants to do something similar, he should consider raising the clenched fist of social justice movements, a symbol that his predecessor and his supporters have badly corrupted.

On January 20, 2017, just moments after being sworn in, Donald Trump turned toward his supporters on the National Mall and raised his right fist in a way that weakly resembled the Black Power salute made famous by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

But Trump’s fist was not about honoring Black Power. His long history of racism, including his discrimination against Black tenants, his call to execute the “Central Park Five,” and his baseless birtherism made his gesture more akin to the Aryan fist that the Anti-Defamation League has deemed a hate symbol.

Predictably, Trump’s supporters, and not just the Proud Boys, mimicked their hero as he continued to raise his fist throughout his presidency. One of the more egregious examples occurred last June, when a white man driving a golf cart in a pro-Trump rally at The Villages, a retirement community in Florida, raised his fist and yelled “white power” at counter protesters. True to form, Trump retweeted a video of the racist act and added his thanks to the “great people” of The Villages.

A more recent example is Senator Josh Hawley’s unpatriotic act of raising his fist to Trump supporters just before they stormed the Capitol on January 6.

Despite their regular use of it, the symbolic fist does not rightfully belong to Trump, the Proud Boys, or any of the other “great people” who imitate him. Its real home is with all the social progressives who have protested for equal justice under law.

In the United States, the fist first emerged as a popular symbol of protest in 1913, when “Big Bill” Haywood, a founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), wielded it during speeches advocating for solidarity among workers of various ethnicities and trades.

Speaking at the infamous silk strike in Paterson, New Jersey, Haywood held his hand high and separated his fingers as widely as possible, saying, “Do you see that? Every finger by itself has no force.” The socialist labor leader then brought all of his fingers together in the form of a tightly clenched fist. “See that?” he asked, raising thrusting his powerful fist into the air. “That’s IWW.”

The clenched fist naturally migrated to the modern Black freedom movement through activists who had also demonstrated with the militant labor movement. One of the most influential of these was Frank Ciecorka, a white field worker for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who illustrated and coauthored a booklet titled Negroes in American History: A Freedom Primer. For the cover of the book, Ciecorka drew a Black fist rising from the center of other Black hands reaching skyward. Published in 1965, the historic illustration marked the first time a symbolic fist of Black resistance appeared in civil rights literature.

The fist became one of Cieciorka’s favorite drawings. In 1966, he used it for a poster advertising the Delano grape strike organized by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Heurta of the National Farmworkers Association, and a year later, after stylizing the image a bit more, he used it for a poster announcing a Berkeley rally against the military draft.

The Students for a Democratic Society and other leftist groups soon adopted this stylized fist as their own symbol, though sometimes tweaking it for their particular purposes. Cieciorka’s design also appeared in popular publications of the Black Panther Party, whose members often raised their fists to protest political and economic oppression and to demonstrate Black pride and power. Since then, the fist has appeared as a major symbol of protest and solidarity in virtually every progressive social justice movement in the United States, including today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

President-elect Biden is no stranger to these movements; they have given him their votes, and he has offered them policy ideas that align with their interests. But he has not yet joined them symbolically. He has pumped his fists on occasion, but he has consistently failed to raise a clenched fist in the way that progressives, including Senator Bernie Sanders, have done so since the early twentieth century.

Biden can change all that on Inauguration Day. It’s not a herculean task. All he has to do is throw caution to the wind, stand tall before the worldwide crowds, and thrust his clenched fist into the air, just as Smith and Carlos did in 1968. With that simple move, Biden can reclaim the fist from his blasphemous predecessor, restoring it back to where it rightfully belongs—within the rich history of progressive social justice movements. Then, at long last, it will be time for all of us progressives to use our clenched fists to pound Trumpism into complete submission.

Michael G. Long is the editor of We the Resistance. 

Yohuru Williams is the author of Black Politics/White Power.