FIFTY YEARS ON, WE SHOULD HONOUR NORMAN’S COURAGE
The Herald Sun, 16 October 2016
Fifty years ago today, a young Australian did two extraordinary things.
At the Mexico City Olympics, Peter Norman won silver in the 200 metres, with a time of 20.06 seconds. In the half century since, no Australian has run faster. It is still our national record.
But the best was still to come. As he walked out to the medal ceremony with Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze), the two African-American runners told him that they planned to bow their heads and put their fists in the air in support of human rights.
1968 was the year in which Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. Race riots in Washington DC, Baltimore, Chicago and Kansas City had represented the biggest upsurge in social unrest since the Civil War, claiming the lives of more than 40 people. Smith and Carlos decided to be a part of those protests.
When John Carlos revealed their plans, he said that he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead ‘I saw love’. Peter Norman told the two athletes ‘I’ll stand with you’. He borrowed an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge and pinned it on his chest. When Carlos realised that he had forgotten his gloves, Norman suggested that they share them. That’s why the famous photograph shows Smith raising his right fist, and Carlos his left fist.
Upon his return, Peter Norman should have been recognised as a hero for racial equality. But he was not. This was the era when many thought sport and politics should not mix. Just three decades earlier, Hitler had been allowed to host the Olympics. Three years later, Australia would host the white-only Springboks Rugby Union team, representing apartheid South Africa.
The failure to honour Peter Norman was our national shame. His inspiring action could have been highlighted in the opening ceremony to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but it was not. He died in 2006. Smith and Carlos were among his pallbearers.
In 2012, I moved a motion that the national parliament apologise posthumously to Peter Norman for the way he was treated. It was carried unanimously. Norman’s mother, Thelma, came to hear members on both sides of parliament pay tribute to her son.
Only after that did my dad tell us about our own family connection to Peter Norman. My grandfather, Keith Leigh, was a marathon runner, and a minister at Rosanna Methodist Church. When Peter Norman returned to Melbourne, Keith invited him to speak from the pulpit about racial equality and the events in Mexico City. I never got to meet my grandfather, but my father recalled that not everyone in the somewhat-conservative congregation appreciated the decision to have a member of the Salvation Army speaking to them!
Today, Peter Norman symbolises the opportunities that each of us have to take a stand against racism. Following the parliamentary apology, a Queensland history teacher told me that he had asked his students to research the story, and then write about moments when they might speak out: such as when a friend tells a racist joke.
In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel rather than stand during the US national anthem. Other African-American players followed his example, protesting racial injustice and police brutality. Many of their white teammates supported the right to ‘take a knee’. They too were heirs to the Peter Norman legacy.
At San Jose State University, there is a statue of Smith and Carlos, with their fists outstretched and their heads bowed. Peter Norman is omitted. As a result, visitors can stand in his place on the dais, and consider how it feels to be in his shoes.
Fifty years on, each of us has the opportunity for ‘Peter Norman moments’ in our own lives.
Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fenner, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra.