Friday, October 7, 2011

Law Power

Written for the Virginia Law Weekly, a law student-run weekly newspaper at UVA. Thus, the audience of this article isn't all that in line with the audience of this blog. Oh well.

Three men on a 1968 Mexico City Olympics medal stand after the 200-meter dash. Two African-Americans, heads bowed, boldly raise black-gloved fists in the air. You’re probably familiar with pictures of the event; maybe, like me, you even had one on your wall as an undergrad. Saturday evening, I got to hear John Carlos, the bronze medal winner in that picture, speak about his new book. I’m not going to be an Olympic athlete; I probably won’t ever get to bring international attention to human rights on anywhere near the scale that John Carlos and Tommie Smith did, but I was inspired to use this extremely influential bully pulpit of a Virginia Law Weekly column to think aloud a bit about how we as future lawyers can stand for something too.

First, why do people still care about what those men did in Mexico City in 1968? As with all enduring symbols, the image of that medal stand is multivalent. What values do you hold? You’ll be able to find them represented. Are you a member of a group that has been marginalized? The salute’s immediate context suggested Black Power, a declaration of sovereignty and self-worth from members of a group so long oppressed. Do you want to protect human rights around the world? Tommie Smith has said that it was, in fact, a human rights salute. Do you fight for workers’ rights? John Carlos wore his Olympic jacket unzipped (a breach of strict Olympic protocol) to honor the blue-collar workers he grew up with in Harlem. Are you concerned about the poor? Smith and Carlos are shoeless with black socks, representing black poverty. Are you religious? The two cited God as a source of strength in doing something they knew would create a tremendous backlash. Do you despise political correctness? So did they; many, including the audience that booed them, saw the gesture as an attempt to turn the games into a political platform. Are you a Second Amendment nut? Carlos’s hand, unlike Smith’s, wasn’t raised straight up—he said he wanted it cocked, ready to punch in self-defense in case someone tried to rush the stand. Whatever your cause is, you can find it on that podium — and you can probably also find one you don’t support. And whether you think they should have done it or not, no one can deny their courage.

Peter Norman (the white guy) also deserves mention. He was the Australian silver-medalist and a vocal critic of his country’s own racist policies. He supported the two Americans wholeheartedly, wearing, like Carlos and Smith, a badge from the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization that urged African-Americans to boycott the games. He also came up with the idea for the two to share Smith’s pair of gloves after Carlos forgot his in the Olympic Village. Carlos said he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes when they told him of their plan for the medal ceremony, but instead, he said, “I saw love.”

All three athletes were censured by the International Olympic Committee, disciplined by their national Olympic authorities, and withstood intense negative media coverage. Carlos and Smith received death threats. Norman was not invited by Australia to compete in the 1972 Olympic Games.

So what does that have to do with U.Va. Law? After all, most of us are going to end up working in law firms, where the bottom line is profit, not justice. No Law Weekly article is going to change that, especially when its author is hypocritically going to be one of those soulless corporate lackeys himself. But even if you aren’t going to be working at a non-profit, tirelessly advocating for those who can’t afford to wield significant legal power on their own behalf (and many, many props to you public service people who will do just that), something John Carlos said Saturday strikes me as appropriate for us. He talked about how sports were never his primary focus. He was good at them and worked hard at them, but he realized at a young age that his talent as an athlete was, for him, a tool for something more important. He knew that people don’t listen to some guy in Harlem talk about racial inequality, but they do pay attention to an Olympic medalist.

When you’re making scads of money (and relative to the world’s population as a whole, all of us will), what are you going to do with it? Some of us will use our wealth and influence to stop people like Troy Davis from being put to death. Some of us will be entrepreneurs, creating new technologies that create unimaginable opportunities for everyone. Some of us will be legislators, or draft legislation, and have the chance to influence society in ways large and small. Some of us will volunteer for local charitable organizations. Some will try to implement Ayn Randian capitalism to achieve ultra-efficient economies. Some of us will be the ones raising our fists to the sky, and some of us will be the Peter Normans, doing what we can to help.

I don’t care what it is, and I can’t agree with all of your projects, but I think John Carlos and Tommie Smith teach all of us something important: Think beyond yourself. Use your power for something you can call the greater good. We’ve all gone from bright-eyed world-changers to cynically resigned law students — even you, 1Ls! The disillusionment happens quickly, as Civ Pro grinds hope out of even the most stalwart idealists, and realism has its place. I’m hoping not to be naive. But think, at least sometimes, of this education we’re receiving as a gift — an opportunity to do something in the coming years to make the world better in some way.

Make sure you piss off The Man at least once with your black-gloved law degree.


  1. :) I'm glad you shared this with us, even though the audience is different. I enjoyed reading it!

  2. A friend pointed me to these two great posts written from a Mormon perspective about this moment: Mexico Olympics - 1968
    Memorializing the Moments