Decades before Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the U.S. national anthem to raise awareness about police brutality against Blacks and other racial injustices, track and field star Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson took a great risk in advocating for social and political change. At the Pan American Games, during the summer of 1959, she refused to stand for the U.S. national anthem, making her one of the first American athletes to do so. She became a cause for activists, civil rights groups and others, but history has mostly forgotten her story.
Robinson, also called Rose or Sis, was born in 1925 in Chicago. The second of three daughters born to Claudius and Mary Robinson, she became exceptionally good at Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) track events in the 1940s before gaining fame as a high jumper, winning at the National AAU Championships in 1958 and later joining the U.S. Track and Field team.
At the time, she was already into activism and would lead a direct-action protest at a segregated skating rink in Cleveland. “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,” Dr. Amira Rose Davis, professor of history and African American studies at Penn State University, told CNN.
In 1958 when the U.S. women’s track team was set to leave for Russia to compete in a State Department track meet “aimed at using Black athletic labor to advance Cold War policy abroad,” Robinson refused to go, a report by Zora said.
She told Jet Magazine: “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.”
Indeed, Robinson was “hypercritical” of American foreign policy under the Cold War, where the government exploited Black athletes and entertainers as political pawns during the war, to redefine America’s global image. Robinson would incur the wrath of AAU officials and the U.S. State Department for refusing to compete in the then Soviet Union.
At the Pan-American Games in 1959, when the U.S. national anthem was played, Robinson refused to stand. “As the U.S. national anthem started to play, the crowd inside Soldier Field rose to its feet in excitement. But high jumper Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson stayed sitting. The track and field athlete was not here for the bloated displays of American greatness. To her, the anthem and the flag represented war, injustice, and hypocrisy,” Zora reported.
But Robinson soon suffered as a result. About six months after refusing to stand for the anthem, Robinson was arrested on charges of tax evasion over the amount of $386. When she appeared before a judge, she refused to pay, citing her opposition to American foreign policy. She told Jet Magazine: “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.”
Sentenced to a year and a day in jail, she still went on to protest by staging a hunger strike. She refused to eat or drink. According to Zora, she became so weak that officials had to carry her in and out of the courtroom and tried to feed her intravenously. At the same time, her hunger strike made headlines, leading to scores of protests whose organisers argued that the high jumper was “wasting away in prison.”
Her defiance compelled authorities to release her after only three months into her prison sentence. She said after her release that her hunger strike was “an endurance test, much like athletics”.
But the physical suffering she went through in prison ultimately ended her athletic career, and she focused more on activism. Becoming a member of the group known as the Peacemakers, Robinson continued to push for social change while speaking against armed conflicts until her death in 1976.
Today, Kaepernick is often referenced when it comes to athletic activism and social justice. Since the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback kneeling protest, scores of athletes have continued to kneel or raise a fist during the anthem in protest against racism and social injustice. But Robinson started it all, although her heroism has been overlooked.
“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.”