(CNN)She laced up her boots and sped on to the skating rink. A seemingly innocuous act, except in 1952 during a time of racial segregation in the US, this young Black woman departed the rink with a broken arm, her actions having infuriated White men intent on her exclusion.
Over a half a century before Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the US national anthem, track and field star Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson was consumed by the need to challenge injustice, but her courageous story has been largely overlooked in the pages of history that have often focused attention instead on athletic peers Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Born in 1925, Robinson excelled at Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) track events in the 1940s before developing into a leading high jumper, winning at the National AAU Championships in 1958 and joining the US Track and Field team thereafter.Activism was already part of her life — through the 50s, she had been prominent in direct action de-segregation protests, including one at a skate rink in Cleveland.”Rose was really effective at the skate-ins because she was a great athlete,” Dr. Amira Rose Davis, professor of history and African American studies at Penn State University, told CNN Sport.Read More”Because she was so agile, she could evade the White patrons who tried to stop her.”She was somebody who really saw her athleticism and that platform as a place with which to critique the government, to critique local regulations and segregation.”As part of the US women’s track team in 1958, Robinson was invited to compete in the then Soviet Union, when the Cold War was in full swing.Robinson rejected the offer and was quoted in Jet Magazine as saying: “I don’t want anyone to think my athletics have political connotations. In other words, I don’t want to be used as a political pawn.””She quite publicly sent the invite back,” said Davis. “She was hypercritical of the government, the treatment of people by the government, but also foreign policy under the Cold War and the United States kind of trying to clean up its image.”Athletic resistanceThe following year, at the Pan-American Games, when “The Star Spangled Banner” was played, Robinson remained seated.In an article in Zora, Davis explains how, to Robinson, “the anthem and the flag represented war, injustice, and hypocrisy.”This was 57 years before Kaepernick knelt during the anthem to protest police brutality — and was an unprecedented act of bravery and defiance from a young Black woman.Kaepernick, who was playing for the San Francisco 49ers when he knelt during the anthem in 2016, has been unsigned to a team since 2017, settling his collusion grievance cases against the NFL in February 2019.Without superstar appeal, financial support, or even a receptive media environment, Robinson soon suffered the consequences of her actions.”Half a year later, she was brought up on tax evasion charges,” Davis said. “It wasn’t quite a coincidence.”Appearing before a judge, Robinson refused to pay her taxes due to her opposition to American foreign policy.Speaking to Jet Magazine again, she said: “I have not entered my tax return for 1954-1958 because I know a large part of it goes to armaments.”The US government is very active in atom bombs and fallout, which is destructive rather than constructive. If I pay income tax, I am participating in that destruction.”She was sentenced to a year and a day in jail, but even that did not stop her desire to protest.READ: ‘I felt my body was still capable’: Meet the moms hoping to shine at the Olympics Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports In 2012 members of the Miami Heat — led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — posed in hoodies in solidarity with slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. Hide Caption 1 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports African-American athletes have a long history of speaking up in defense of civil rights. In 1967 a group of top athletes from various sports gathered to support Muhammad Ali in rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War. Seated in the front row, from left to right: Bill Russell, Ali, Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Standing behind them are Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten.Hide Caption 2 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) of the US launched one of the most famous sporting protests in history on the podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics with their Black Power salute. Australian sliver medalist Peter Norman (left) also stood in protest, wearing a human rights badge on his track suit. The act harmed his career in Australia. Hide Caption 3 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports NBA star Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks marched with protesters in Maryland, demanding better police accountability and racial equality following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in April 2015.Hide Caption 4 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports In 2016 Colin Kaepernick ( #7) of the San Francisco 49ers created a storm by refusing to stand for the national anthem before NFL games. He is pictured with teammate Eric Reid (#35) prior to a home game against the Los Angeles Rams on September 12, 2016.Hide Caption 5 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports Other athletes — including those at the college and high school level — joined Kaepernick’s protest. Megan Rapinoe (#15) of the US Women’s National Team knelt before a match against Thailand on September 15, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio.Hide Caption 6 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports Social protest is also something undertaken by fans. Back on December 4, 1935, the German football team give the Nazi salute at White Hart Lane, the London home of Tottenham Hotspur. England fans protested outside the stadium before the match, according to sports sociologist Joseph Maguire. Hide Caption 7 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports In 2009 Inter Milan fans held up posters supporting Mario Balotelli in response to racist abuse that the player received at Juventus. The English translation of the posters is “Better black than Juventus.”Hide Caption 8 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports German footballer Deniz Naki — shown playing for former club St. Pauli of the Bundesliga — was banned for 12 matches and fined $5,825 for a Facebook post dedicating his Turkish second division club’s victory to Kurdish combatants in southeastern Turkey. Naki’s parents are of Kurdish origin, and he has Kurdish-themed tattoos on his arms. Hide Caption 9 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports England cricketer Steve Harrison refused to travel to Zimbabwe in 2004 for a series of matches. Although Harrison boycotted the tour for political reasons against the Zimbabwean regime, the England & Wales Cricket Board did not take any action against him. Hide Caption 10 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports British-Ghanian player Emmanuel Frimpong received a red card in the first match of the 2015 Russian soccer season after making an obscene gesture at Spartak Moscow. He later wrote on social media that he was responding to racial abuse from the stands. “(I) am a human being shouldn’t be racially abused for the game that I love,” he wrote. “And yet we going to hold a World Cup in this country where African(s) will have to come play football.”Hide Caption 11 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports AC Milan’s former Ghanaian defender Kevin-Prince Boateng picked up the ball, kicked it towards the stands and walked off the pitch during a friendly against Pro Patria in Busto Arsizio on January 3, 2013 because of racists chants from home supporters. “Shame that these things still happen,” the 25-year-old German-born Ghanaian player said on his Twitter account. The match was stopped in the 26th minute when he led his team off the pitch. Hide Caption 12 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports Former NBA player John Amaechi, who is now a psychologist in London, says standing for national anthems before sporting events is unnecessary. He added that he would not attend a tournament in Russia if he was an active athlete. Hide Caption 13 of 14 Photos: A timeline of social activism in sports Howard Gayle played for eight English football clubs, and was the first black player to play for Liverpool. Gayle says he tried to educate teammates on acts of passive racism. During his playing days he did not sing the national anthem, and later refused an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) title from Buckingham Palace.Hide Caption 14 of 14In an act of total noncompliance, she refused all nourishment while imprisoned and was subjected to painful force feeding.”She was brought to jail on these charges and she staged a hunger strike,” said Davis. “While she’s staging the hunger strike, she’s likening this to being an athlete, to training.”She’s talking about how she’s mentally getting through the hunger strike by using the same thing that she uses if she’s training for the high jump or as an athlete.”Her unrelenting stance led to increased media coverage, a clamor from Black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, and protesters picketing outside the courthouse as they saw a local athlete, high jump star and possible Olympian wasting away in prison.Long reads
“She refused to pay because she said she didn’t want her money to go towards supporting this war machine,” said Davis. “She again reiterated that she had no desire to be a pawn or in any way contribute or enable what the United States was doing.”In her refusal, she keeps doubling down on it, and this is why she stages the strike, because the judge is saying, ‘OK, just pay the fine, we’ll let you out,’ and she’s saying: ‘No. To draw attention to how unjust this is, I’m not going to eat.'”And so all the pictures we have of her from that trial are her being carried out because she’s so emaciated that it’s difficult for her to even walk.”‘Disposable people’Only three months into her prison sentence, Robinson’s defiance ultimately forced the authorities to release her, according to the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee.However, after the physical suffering she had endured, her sporting career at the national level was effectively over.”By all accounts her athletic career ends,” said Davis. “Activism became her main focus.”Joining up with a group called the Peacemakers, Robinson continued to oppose segregation and armed conflicts. Arguably Robinson’s place in history as the first athlete to not stand for the US national anthem has been largely forgotten.”One of the reasons why we lose her story a little bit is because her pacifism and her continued activism starts overshadowing her athletics,” said Davis.”When I think about Rose’s story, I think about both the way she saw her athletics informing her activism, and how we lose stories of athletic activism if they’re by disposable people, especially Black women.” Photos: The females athletes challenging injusticeBefore each match at the US Open 2020, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka wore a face covering displaying the name of a different Black victim of alleged police or racist violence in the US — from Breonna Taylor in her first round-match against Misaki Doi to Tamir Rice in the final against Azarenka. Here Osaka displays the name Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man, shot while jogging in Georgia.Hide Caption 1 of 7 Photos: The females athletes challenging injusticeWyomia Tyus — the first sprinter to retain the Olympic 100m title — wore black shorts throughout the 1968 Olympics in Mexico to show support for Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Hide Caption 2 of 7 Photos: The females athletes challenging injusticeIn July 2016 — a month before Colin Kaepernick first drew attention by not standing for the US national anthem — members of the reigning WNBA champion the Minnesota Lynx protested before a game against the Dallas Wings wearing T-shirts with the words on the front: “Change starts with us. Justice & accountability.” On the back were the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two Black men killed by police that month, and the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson, and Seimone Augustus are pictured in this photo.Hide Caption 3 of 7 Photos: The females athletes challenging injusticeMegan Rapinoe and the World Cup winning US Women’s National Team filed a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation in March 2019, alleging unequal pay for equal work with the men’s soccer team. Here Rapinoe celebrates scoring during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final.Hide Caption 4 of 7 Photos: The females athletes challenging injusticeSerena Williams — the 23-time grand slam winning tennis player — used her platform to bring attention to pay equity and Black maternal death rates, in examples of the nuanced versions of activism from women in sport. Williams is pictured here at the 2019 US Open.Hide Caption 5 of 7 Photos: The females athletes challenging injusticeWilma Rudolph, the sprinter who became an international star as the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics — the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay at the 1960 Rome Games — returned to the US a champion and used her new found platform to advocate for the integration of pools and parks in in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee. Rudolph is pictured crossing the finish line in a women’s sprint event at the 1960 Rome Olympics.Hide Caption 6 of 7 Photos: The females athletes challenging injusticeWNBA team the Connecticut Sun kneel during the National Anthem before the game against the Atlanta Dream in August 2020. The WNBA dedicated the season to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name movement — which raises awareness for Black female victims of police violence. They also collectively backed Raphael Warnock in the Georgia senatorial elections against Republican and WNBA team — the Atlanta Dream — owner Kelly Loffler.Hide Caption 7 of 7A gendered differenceAccording to another leading academic — Harry Edwards, the founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and professor of sports sociology at Berkley University — female activist athletes are often not mentioned in the same breath as their male peers. “They and their activist contributions typically have been diminished if not completely dismissed, ignored, and forgotten by the sports media and even many sports historians,’ Edwards told CNN Sport.“And again, I emphasize, consistent with the institutionalized misogyny that pervades sport and society and, all too often, even the struggle against sports and society’s oppressive traditions.”Tokyo 2020
Fellow track stars like Smith and Carlos, or household names Muhammad Ali and LeBron James, are widely recognized for shining a spotlight on social injustice, but stories such as Robinson’s are rarely told.The same could be said for Wyomia Tyus, the first sprinter — male or female, Black or White — to retain the 100m title at the Olympics after winning gold in 1964, and then again in 1968.At the Summer Olympics in Mexico in 1968, Smith and Carlos raised their gloved fists into the air as the National Anthem played, prompting their removal from the games and death threats.Tyus dedicated her medals to the pair, while wearing black shorts throughout the Olympics to show her solidarity with them and the Olympic Project for Human Rights.As initial members of the project, Smith and Carlos had planned to boycott the games to protest, as Edwards stated, “the persistent and systemic violation of Black people’s human rights in the United States.”Yet, as Davis points out, neither Tyus nor her female peers were included in the plans and the legacy of their actions since has been marginalized next to the men.”They never reached out to the women on the track team,” she said. “Tyus was really instrumental in continuing to talk to the women athletes to think about how they might protest at the Olympic Games since they weren’t included in these other organizational discussions.”When the boycott fell through and everybody ended up in Mexico City, there was a collective decision made that everybody was going to protest in their own way.”VISIT: CNN.com/sport for more news, features and videosDavis also pointed to Wilma Rudolph, the sprinter who became an international star as the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics — the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay at the 1960 Rome Games.”She has her notoriety and also her activism, and we lose that because there’s such an effort to erase that from her narrative. She had acclaim worldwide, but as this kind of smiling, benign athlete,” said Davis.”And so, for Black women athletes, if they are going to reach a level of notoriety, it’s conditioned so much on the performance of being respectable and demure and all of these things that really erases their activism.”As well as her passionate activism, Robinson worked as a social worker, and died in 1976.
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