The time was 1968 and the Civil Rights Movement in America was at its peak. Only months earlier the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated and there was unrest in the streets and hatred in the air. Faced with the challenge (or opportunity) to make a statement on a World Stage about civil rights as a white person, would you have the courage to do it?
Peter Norman did. Peter Norman, an average white Australian male who just happened to be in the right place, at the right time didn’t hesitate to make a statement. And he never wavered on his position until his death last week.
Who is Peter Norman? He was the Silver Medal winner in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City or “The Third Man on the Podium”.
No matter how old you are you surely have seen the picture. Tommie Smith and John Carlos with their fists clenched above their bowed heads. But have you ever stopped to think about the third person in that picture? Who he was or what his reaction to this must have been? I hadn’t. Not until today when I read Mike Wise’s article “Clenched Fists, Helping Hand” in The Washington Post.
In ways it was refreshing to know that Smith and Carlos told Norman beforehand what they planned to do. Instead of alerting officials he chose to actively participate in the protest by wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.
You have to ask yourself, “What would I do?”
This is a question many of us have asked ourselves since 9/11. If we were on Flight 93 or any flight where terrorists tried to hijack the plane, how would we react? That is a pretty extreme situation that is truly a matter of life and death and we all would like to think we would be like Todd Beamer and those heroes on Flight 93.
But what about a situation that does not put your life or others immediately at risk? What if it is a social statement that could risk you stature among your friends or in Norman’s case, his country. Would you have the courage to do the right thing?
I always enjoyed John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage when I was growing up and always felt it should be required reading in school. I am sure if they were updated today, Peter Norman and his courage at the 1968 Olympics would be among the stories.
So ask yourself and answer honestly, “What would you do?” If you find it hard to answer then you are in the right mindset because nothing of great consequence should be easy to answer. The next time you are faced with the dilemma of doing the right thing or just ignoring the problem, think of people like Peter Norman and know that you can make a difference.