In the waning days of summer in 1959, Chicago was overrun with sporting frenzy. Over 2,000 athletes from 24 countries were arriving to compete in the third Pan American Games — and it was a bit of a mess. Chicago had been a last-minute location change and there were a number of logistical issues and mix-ups, including the 17 members of the Chilean women’s basketball team packed into just two hotel rooms.
By the time the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremonies began, officials hoped the pageantry and sweeping displays of nationalism would distract onlookers from the less savory headlines. 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.
This summer, just shy of 60 years after Rose refused to stand for the national anthem, making her one of the earliest American athletes to do so, another Black woman protested at the Pan American Games. On August 9, U.S. hammer thrower Gwen Berry stood on the medal stand wearing bright blue lipstick and a gold medal around her neck. As the end of the national anthem played, she bowed her head and raised her fist, issuing a silent protest motivated by her personal journey and her belief that, “America can do better.” Berry invoked images of the iconic 1968 Olympic protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos. “Athletes are humans. Just because we decide to dedicate our lives to a sport doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion about world issues,” Berry says.
Although Robinson and Berry garnered some attention for their actions, they represent a core group that is often overlooked in the history of athletes and protest. Black women athletes have, and continue to take great risk in advocating for social and political change inside and outside of sports, even as they garner less visibility for their actions.
We are currently in the midst of what sports sociologist Harry Edwards calls the “fourth wave of athletic activism.” This wave can be traced back to 2012 when LeBron James and the Miami Heat donned hoodies in remembrance of Trayvon Martin. In the years since, as the videos of Black death and hashtags of Black names started mounting, so to did the response from Black athletes. Eric Garner was strangled to death on camera and basketball players around the country wore “I can’t breathe” shirts. After Mike Brown was gunned down by police in Ferguson, Missouri, St. Louis Rams players walked onto the field saying “Hands up, don’t shoot.”
After Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were shot and killed by police in 2016, players in the WNBA, a league that was 70% African American at the time, publicly rallied in support. The New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury, and Indiana Fever sported black warm-up shirts, a league uniform violation, in solidarity with the victims and their families. The Minnesota Lynx wore “Change Starts With Us: Justice & Accountability” shirts in a pregame press conference — and players from both the Lynx and the Washington Mystics, have refused to take postgame interviews unless they could talk about social issues.
While these protests received some media attention, much like women’s sports in general, it paled in respect to the stage given to their male counterparts across the NBA and NFL. In fact, at the same time that the NBA and much of sports media were lauding the basketball stars who were driving the conversation about social justice, WNBA leadership attempted to fine teams and players for their protest.
But by far, the most enduring symbol of the newest wave of athletic activism has been Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest during the national anthem, and subsequent blackballing from the NFL. In the three years since Kaepernick first knelt to raise awareness of racism, police brutality, and social injustice, athletes have continued to kneel or raise a fist during the anthem in solidarity and in protest of those same issues.
It is easy to draw parallels from Robinson’s anthem protest to Kaepernick’s. But in truth, Robinson’s moment in 1959 was but a small action in her much longer commitment to resistance. A deeper look into the life of this tenacious woman provides another way of seeing the fullness of athletic activism, reminding us of the long history of Black women in sports raising their voices and demanding change for themselves and the world.
“Athletes are humans. Just because we decide to dedicate our lives to a sport doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion about world issues.”
Eroseanna Robinson — also called Rose or Sis — was born in 1925 in Chicago. Rose was the second of three daughters born to Claudius and Mary Robinson. The Robinsons were a lower middle-class family who lived on the South Side. Claudius’s job as a mail carrier allowed them to move to Ada Street, on the periphery of the Englewood neighborhood which was starting to see the effects of White flight. It also put the Robinson girls, all athletes, in walking distance to Copernicus Playground and Recreation Center, where the trio was active.
In 1943, Rose, along with her sisters Adrienne and Bernice, led Copernicus to the Central Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) track title. They earned four gold medals and two silvers between them, including the 4x100 meter relay where the sisters made up three-fourths of the team.
For Robinson, sports gave her a sense of focus, drive, and confidence. All skills that she took with her to her job as a social worker and her budding involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.
When Robinson moved to Cleveland to work in a community center, she started to get heavily involved with their local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). By 1952, she was a leader within the small chapter and led a direct-action protest at a segregated skating rink. Historian Victoria Wolcott writes about the Skateland protest in her book, Race, Riots and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America, where she details the fact that Robinson led “skate-ins” on multiple nights and used her skating skills to forcibly integrate the popular skating rink. In the rink, Robinson drew the bulk of the attention and animosity of the White patrons and eventually even sustained a broken arm from the abuse. “Rose Robinson’s athleticism was always central to her political practices.” Wolcott says. “When she darted around White skaters while attempting to desegregate Skateland… she demonstrated her athletic skill in the face of an aggressive White mob determined to trip her.”
While in Cleveland, Robinson also continued to compete in track and field with Cleveland Recreation. By the time she was back in Chicago, in the late 1950s, she had become a very notable high jumper on the AAU circuit. In 1958, Robinson won the high jump at the AAU National Championship and was named to the National Women’s Track and Field team. This disproportionately Black team was scheduled to go to Russia to compete in a State Department track meet aimed at using Black athletic labor to advance Cold War policy abroad. Upon earning a place on the team, Robinson immediately told reporters she was not going to Russia. “I don’t want to be used as a political pawn,” she said.
Robinson’s refusal to promote American foreign policy abroad is notable because it came at a time in which the U.S. Government was invested in using Black athletes, musicians, and dancers in an attempt to shield the country from the global critiques of Jim Crow practices. Robinson’s very public resistance put her at odds with not only AAU officials, but also the U.S. State Department.
One year later, and just six months after sitting for the anthem at the Pan Am Games, Robinson was arrested on charges of tax evasion over the amount of $386. When brought before the judge, she refused to pay, citing the U.S. government’s propensity for violence and war. “If I pay income tax, I am participating in that destruction,” Robinson said. The judge sentenced her to a year and a day in jail. While in jail, Robinson engaged in a hunger strike refusing to eat or drink. She became so weak that they had to carry her in and out of the courtroom and attempted to feed her intravenously. Her hunger strike garnered national attention as hundreds of protesters and letters of support poured in to support the “athlete wasting away in prison.”
After her release, Robinson said that her hunger strike was “an endurance test, much like athletics” and described the similar ways she approached her protest and her track meets. “The discipline needs are the same,” Robinson said, “a maintenance of form with no wasted motion… detachment from distraction… effort equal to challenge, never leaning towards the finish prematurely, striding evenly, and in a balanced way.”
In the years after her release, Robinson continued her activism, organizing largely with a pacifist group called the Peacemakers. She would employ the hunger strike tactic again when she and two friends were arrested for attempting to eat at segregated restaurant in Maryland. “The discipline and skill that Robinson demonstrated on the track field was invaluable in her political work,” Wolcott says. “Both took enormous stamina and courage.”
Robinson remained steadfast and courageous, resisting and pushing for social change until her death in 1976.
Robinson’s life story may end there, but her legacy continues in the Black athletes who echo her resistance in sports. And particularly, the Black women whose stories are overlooked. Women like three-time Olympic gold medalist Wyomia Tyus whose individual protest and subsequent medal dedication to teammates Tommie Smith and John Carlos was overshadowed by their brave medal stand display in the 1968 Olympics. “We were right there with the change, just nobody wrote about it, nobody said anything about it.” Tyus says. “From us wearing Black shorts, for us dedicating the medals… there are pictures of us giving the Black power salute, but nobody talks about that.” Tyus understood her protest to be “for all the change” she wanted to see as a Black woman.
In some ways, this is how Black women’s athletic activism has been overlooked, because it contains multitudes. Black women in sports have been protesting a variety of things that they see as overlapping and connected, but are issues that often are simplified by observers.
Take for instance Toni Smith-Thompson who staged an anthem protest in 2003 when she was a basketball player at Manhattanville College. When the anthem was played before the games, Smith-Thompson would quietly turn her back and face the other direction. The newspapers who did cover her action — and the hateful response to it — called it an “anti-war” protest. But for Smith-Thompson, that narrow view missed the bigger picture, the bigger issues she was compelled to stand against. “It wasn’t an anti-war protest in the sense that I just wanted to be against the war,” Smith-Thompson says. “It was an anti-war protest in the sense that the war was emblematic of the ways that the country perpetuates these practices domestically… that the way it punishes and kills is always handed out more harshly on Black and Brown communities. It was important to me that people connect the two.”
Today we are seeing the ripples of Robinson, Tyus, and Smith-Thompson’s actions as Black women athletes are advocating for a myriad of issues impacting them. Track champions Allyson Felix and Alysia Montaño are pushing for labor rights for working mothers. Serena Williams is magnifying the issue of the devastating black maternal mortality rate. Mystics guard Natasha Cloud continues to speak out on gun violence. Venus Williams, pro soccer player Christen Press, WNBA star Nneka Ogwumike have all advanced the cause for equal pay in their respective sports.
When these women protest, they are championing for their whole selves.
Press surmised as much when she discussed the ways the U.S. National Soccer team garnered a lot of attention for gender equality. “There is no future of gender equality without the future of racial equality,” she told The Equalizer.
Like Robinson, some women are also stepping away from sport to make change. WNBA superstar Maya Moore took this season off to dedicate her time to the fight for prison and criminal justice reform, echoing some concerns Robinson expressed decades before when she noted that “the pressures of imprisonment are designed to destroy the will of individual… their moral fiber… the whole prison system shows the need for a constructive alternative approach.”
From organizing off the court to protesting on the court, Black women in sports today are as politically engaged as ever. While they certainly are part of this fourth wave of activism, Black women are also connected to a longer deeper current — gathering power that has been building steadily since Robinson’s refusal to stand for the anthem.
Six decades after Robinson’s resistance at the Pan Am Games, Gwen Berry doesn’t regret her own silent protest, though she was penalized by the USOC which placed her on probation and issued a public letter aimed at intimidating and discouraging future protest.
As Berry prepares for the 2020 Olympics, her resolve is as strong as ever. “When you see something that isn’t right, speak out. When you experience something that is inhuman, tell someone. This is how you can begin to sprinkle change onto the issue,” Berry says. “It is imperative that you speak up for what is right. We should encourage all we can and speak power and strength into anyone that will listen.”
Though the stakes are high for Black female athletes, who constantly battle for respect, recognition, and resources in sports — a space inherently political — they keep pushing. They are exemplars of what it means to break ground and not back down. “Black women in sports are the most persistent models of power and strength,” says Professional softball player AJ Andrews. “No matter how the world tries to hide and deny our talent, we persist forward with unshakeable courage, demanding the world pay attention to our endless and irrefutable capabilities.”