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…