Why Is the Symbol for Black Power a Clenched Fist?

A clenched fist in the air is a symbol for black power because it stands for resistance and self-defense. The clenched fist has been used a symbol of human power and agency for thousands of years, with the first clenched fist appearing in cave drawings during the Neolithic period. Initial images of the clenched fist typically depicted the first holding a tool or a weapon.

The clenched fist has been a recurring symbol in the struggles of the labor movement, representing class solidarity and the agency of the working man. The children of early labor activists then adopted the symbol throughout the social movements in the mid-century. In the 1960's, the New Left emerged to protest social and political policies that were oppressive and demonstrative of the racist and gendered ideologies that informed law-making. The New Left used the symbol of the raised fist in the Vietnam anti-war movement and later in the Black Power and Women's Liberation movements to represent solidarity, resistance, militancy and radicalism. These activists were seeking ways to disrupt the common order and establish a new system of social and political ideologies that did not discriminate against women, African-Americans, other communities of color or gay women and men. The first use of the clenched fist as a symbol of black power was during the medal ceremony of the 1968 Olympics. John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists, clothed in black gloves, into the air in the spirit of resistance and defiance against the established order.