Hand Gestures of 1968: Black Panther Fist and Peace Sign

Grant Tyler

Hand gestures have always carried significant weight behind their meanings, and offer a way for people to symbolically express themselves. In the tumultuous year of 1968, the black panther fist and the peace sign were two hand gestures whose power represented the voice of those in protest. The black panther movement was aimed at fighting for equality for the African Americans in the United States. The symbol of this movement became a raised fist, to unify those in the movement and create a symbol of uprising.


In 1968, the civil rights movement reached a interesting stage, as Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated in Memphis. Even without one of the main leaders of the civil rights movement, the strength behind the black power movement was solidified by the movement behind the fist. One of the most influential uses of the fist came in the summer of 1968 at the Olympics in Mexico City. After sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos held up the fist on the podium after receiving medals in the 200 meter race.


This image has been remembered throughout time, as these black athletes showed their power in the protest as the world watched them compete.

Today, as the country still experiences racial equality issues, the black panther fist has taken on a new adaptation. The black panther movement could be taken as an adaptation of the 2018 film “Black Panther” This film uses an almost entirely black cast, and brings in many themes of racial unity and uprising. The fist was also seen in this movie, but in a new way. The two clenched fists are crossed over one’s chest, and this gesture represents strength and respect.


The evolution of the fist shows the processual and unpredictable memory affects that the gesture has today. The movie was extremely successful, and the gesture was carried down from the screen to many social events, including the Oscars and the NBA Dunk Contest, as seen below.



The memory of the black panther fist is hard to forget in today’s age, as the fight for racial equality is still an issue in this country.

The peace sign was another powerful tool used in 1968 as a form of protest. As Vietnam waged war during the time of the 1968 election, a large percent of the population was against the war efforts.  Richard Nixon claimed to have a plan to end the war, and he was successful in being elected as president.



The peace sign, or “V sign” as it is sometimes referred to, has had a long history politically. “By the time of Nixon’s farewell, the V sign had moved from the province of political leaders to the counterculture, with college students and protesters using it as a symbol of opposition to the Vietnam War. As the antiwar movement morphed into the more general cultural rebellion of the Woodstock era, the sign became a generational icon synonymous with peace and with struggle against the military-industrial complex.” [6]


The hippie movement was response to the Vietnam War, and the protest against the violence. The peace sign became a symbol used by the protesters to spread love rather than hate and violence.


While Nixon was pushing for peace, his idea of peace grew different from that of the hippie movement. “The peace we seek in the world is not the flimsy peace which is merely an interlude between wars, but a peace which can endure for generations to come. It is important that we understand both the necessity and the limitations of America’s role in maintaining that peace. Unless we in America work to preserve the peace, there will be no peace. Unless we in America work to preserve freedom, there will be no freedom.” [10]

This hand gesture has remained prominent today, as it is a common expression by Americans and all nations. The gesture itself serves as a usable piece of memory. With all the social unrest that occurs in our country and across the world, peace is always a message that can be spread, and this hand gesture that was elevated by the hippie movement in 1968 still has power in today’s world.

These sites of memory have been carried through the ages, as their original uses have still been meaningful throughout history. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were pieces of history that forced people to stand up for their beliefs and rights, and that message is still important today. With racial inequalities and overseas violence still prominent in our world, the current adaptation of the black panther fist and the peace sign still give voice to the message that those in 1968 protested for.



  1. John Dominis/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
  2. slate.com
  4. Image Source: Getty / Jeff Kravitz
  5. Vernon Merritt III/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
  6. Zelinsky, Nathaniel. “From Churchill to Libya: How the V Symbol Went Viral.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Mar. 2011, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/from-churchill-to-libya-how-the-v-symbol-went-viral/2011/03/18/AFzPiYYB_story.html?utm_term=.45d6498bc3a2.
  7. CBSSundayMorning. “Almanac: ‘V for Victory’ Sign.” YouTube, YouTube, 19 July 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6eIkamRsO8.
  8. Gado Images / Alamy Stock Photo
  9. Photo © Carter Tomassi.
  10. “Richard M. Nixon Quote.” A-Z Quotes, www.azquotes.com/quote/613618.

5 thoughts on “Hand Gestures of 1968: Black Panther Fist and Peace Sign”

  1. I enjoyed your discussion on the different interpretations of the same symbol (the peace sign) and the different interpretations of it by hippies and Richard Nixon and I think this relates to the usable quality of memory. I also found your example of the movie “Black Panther” as an example of the evolution of the black power symbol over time and how it relates to the processual and unpredictable qualities of memory. I would suggest perhaps adding a video to further develop your ideas but this post is informative overall.

  2. This topic is really interesting because, as you noted when discussing the “Black Panther” movie, these gestures show how memory can be processual and unpredictable. I had no idea that the peace sign was originally intended as a “V for Victory,” showing how the countermovement used that sign against the war. The video about Churchill was helpful in learning about a more international viewpoint and putting this all into context worldwide. Very interesting!

  3. I actually learned a lot from this post. I think that it is important to really pay attention to gestures made throughout history because they portray a lot more than we think. I, too, had no idea that the peace sign was originally meant for victory. The meaning of the symbol now seems to stray so far from the original narrative of the sign, which really shows how much memory is processual. I think you did a great job with connecting the history and evolving of these symbols to the processes of memory we learned about.

  4. When discussing the raised fist, I appreciate the context provided both in 1968 as well as in today’s pop culture. The Black Panther movie is still being talked about quite a bit across social media, and providing a historical background for the frequently used gesture (two fisted hands crossed) is definitely an important piece of information for fans of the movie to have. Also, including MLK’s assassination was interesting because it caused me to think about how raising a fist in this context supports Dr. King’s idea of nonviolence, such as how Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the Olympics. Raising a fist, and not striking anyone with it, as a symbol of nonviolence is an interesting metaphor, and one which abides by the wishes of Martin Luther King, Jr.

  5. A raised fist for peace is symbolic in itself, but given cultural context from when it became a symbol to modern expressions of the fist solidifies its nature as a symbol of empowerment and an enduring dream for racial equality. But wouldn’t King’s death strengthen the movement rather than solidify since it was a strong movement to begin with? It’s also cool to learn about its origins coming from a background of diverse culture, where the expression became part of a cultural handshake that symbolized brotherhood within the community. This was an awesome article.

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