Raised Fists, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

An Icon’s History, and An Introduction

Designer Ron Wong’s rendition of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ iconic raised fist salute.

Designer Ron Wong’s rendition of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ iconic raised fist salute.

The image of American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 1968 Olympics went viral long before going viral was a thing. Taking their place on the winner’s platform in Mexico City, Smith and Carlos let it be known their hearts were with the black power movement. It was the raised fist’s most high-profile appearance at that point, but it wasn’t the first. The raised fist had already traveled far and wide, evolving from a fringe image into a cultural phenomenon, and its history tells us a lot about how imagery spreads and can change the world.

Scholars suggest the raised fist first appeared in French painter Honoré Daumier’s 1848 work, The Uprising, in the form of an individual peasant woman shaking hers at economic injustice. But the fist as we know it – as a proxy for mass solidarity against oppression; as a “people’s power salute” – was first broadly shared in a June 1917 advert for the labor union the Industrial Workers of the World. The accompanying caption read, “The Hand That Will Rule the World - One Big Union.”

This  IWW  advert is the likely epicenter for the symbol’s modern history.

This IWW advert is the likely epicenter for the symbol’s modern history.

There’s no way to know how the icon spread, but the IWW was the likely epicenter: founded in 1905 in Chicago, they had a global presence by 1917, so their engaged audience probably first adopted the raised fist and shared it with others. Yet regardless of how it spread, the raised fist became more common as the century progressed: Swedish labor activists employed the image in 1932 posters; Spain’s anti-fascist Republicans raised theirs against right-wing Nationalists during that country’s 1936-1939 civil war; the U.S. government incorporated the raised fist into a 1940 poster for liberal writer Max Lerner’s lecture, Civil Liberties in Wartime; and the Mexican artist collective Taller de Gráfica Popular (People’s Graphic Workshop) printed raised fist woodcuts around 1948, distributing the symbol through their vast network across Mexico and the western United States. But this was just the beginning.

The raised fist already had an international profile by mid-century, as seen in a 1940  American advert ; a 1933 image from the  Spanish Civil War ; and a 1953  TGB poster .

The raised fist already had an international profile by mid-century, as seen in a 1940 American advert; a 1933 image from the Spanish Civil War; and a 1953 TGB poster.

The raised fist’s tipping point came in the 1960s, in California, thanks to an artist-turned-activist named Frank Cierciorka. Born in upstate New York, Cieciorka had no intention of becoming an activist when he enrolled at the University of San Jose in 1957. In fact, it wasn’t until 1960 that he first began dabbling in rabble-rousing, at a collective action against the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and he was not into it: He later admitted the event made him uncomfortable, particularly the sight of so many raised fists. 

“There was a sizable group of Communists, Trotskyists, Anarchists, and other assorted reds off to one side thrusting fists into the air and chanting radical slogans. I remember feeling somewhat uncomfortable being associated with this group who seemed to be much more radical than I and I moved to another part of the crowd.”  

Yet despite these initial reservations, Cierciorka warmed up to the movement: By 1964 he was a card-carrying member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with whom he travelled south as a Freedom Fighter to fight racist voter suppression and other forms of injustice. There, out of his liberal bubble, he saw the grotesque face of racial and economic oppression up close and personal. It was horrifying, and also energizing. Cierciorka returned to California with renewed purpose: to use his artistic talents to fight for what’s right. And he knew exactly which image to use: “When I got back from Mississippi in ’65, the fist was a natural for the first woodcut in a series of cheap prints.”

Popular among Cierciorka’s friends and allies, the image still didn’t capture the popular imagination for another two years, in December 1967, after Cieciorka stamped it on buttons for the SNCC’s Stop the Draft Week: “It wasn’t until we made it into a button and tossed thousands of them into crowds at rallies and demonstrations that it really became popular.” 

black-power-fist.jpg

By adapting his approach – switching from more personalized postcards to display-ready buttons — Cieciorka pushed his image over the edge, solidifying the raised fist’s place in protest culture and inspiring new and novel interpretations, including the graphic designer Emory Douglas, who created his own version for the Black Panthers. (Note how this version, seen to the left, features a palm crease forming a well-defined upward arrow; note too that the fist itself is a left hand, rather than a right, as in Cieciorka’s, a subtle detail that makes a big change to the subtext.)

The power salute was now unavoidable: French students raised ‘em in May of 1968; their American peers did the same at the DNC protests in Chicago that August; feminists lifted their own against the Miss America pageant in September; and then, in October, in Mexico, Smith and Carlos elevated the gesture, literally, on the winner’s podium.

The proverbial genie was out of the bottle, and it was never going back: Power salutes were raised at Stonewall in June 1969, 50 years ago this year; Robin Morgan’s 1970 tome Sisterhood is Powerful featured a red version encircled by the Venus symbol; and that same year saw Hunter S. Thompson use a peyote-clutching “Gonzo Fist” during his campaign for Aspen Sheriff.

A few raised fist iterations: one  Wisconsin  labor; a  feminist fist ; and one for Arab Spring, by Manuel Lopez Ruiz, via  Behance .

A few raised fist iterations: one Wisconsin labor; a feminist fist; and one for Arab Spring, by Manuel Lopez Ruiz, via Behance.

It’s impossible to compile an exhaustive encyclopedia of raised fist iconography – every anti-war protest since the late 1960s; countless civil rights demonstrations; democratic rallies under totalitarian regimes around the world, to name a few hundred examples — but no matter where or by whom, the raised fist almost always means the same thing: people’s power fighting for democratic ideals and against oppression. It became a shorthand for millions of activists, allowing them to use a simple but potent symbol to make their voices heard on a wide variety of topics.

Once isolated to pro-labor activists, the raised fist evolved into a uniquely versatile and emotive symbol, one that links diverse but like-minded people around the world. Once niche, the raised fist became an unparalleled worldwide movement that challenges the homogenous status quo and makes room for new voices and ideas.

Apple/iOS

Apple/iOS

And that’s what FAROUT is all about. Produced by Spring Design Partners, this site will explore the people, concepts, brands, and technologies propelling positive progress; we’ll investigate how innovation spawns inclusivity and sustainability; and we’ll show how today’s unconventional can become tomorrow’s norm.

Just as the raised fist grew from an edgy icon into an adaptable, unmistakable, and ubiquitous power salute that changed the world, so too are today’s far out ideas destined to advance and improve global society in the years ahead. And we’re excited to share them with you, so that together we can raise our voices, and sometimes our fists, to change the world for the better.