May 14, 2021

Sports Legend

Long before Colin Kaepernick, this black woman challenged her country


Born in 1925, Robinson excelled in the Amateur Athletic Association (AAU) track events in the 1940s before becoming a large high jumper, winning the AAU National Championships in 1958 and then joining the team. American athletics.

Activism was already a part of her life – in the 1950s she had played a leading role in direct-action desegregation protests, including one on an ice rink in Cleveland.

“Because she was so nimble, she could escape the white bosses who were trying to stop her.

“He was someone who really saw his athleticism and this platform as a place to criticize the government, criticize local regulations and segregation.”

As a member of the US women’s athletic team in 1958, Robinson was invited to compete in the then Soviet Union as 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 athleticism has political overtones. In other words, I don’t want to be used as a political pawn.”

“She returned the invitation publicly,” Davis said. “She was hypercritical of the government, of the government’s treatment of people, but also of foreign policy during the Cold War and the United States was sort of trying to clean up her image.”

Athletic resistance

The following year, at the Pan Am Games, when “The Star Spangled Banner” was played, Robinson remained seated.

In an article by Zora, Davis explains how, for Robinson, “the anthem and the flag represented war, injustice and hypocrisy.”

It was 57 years before Kaepernick knelt during the hymn to protest police brutality – and it was an act of unprecedented bravery and defiance on the part of a young black woman.

Kaepernick, who played for the San Francisco 49ers when he knelt during the anthem in 2016, has not been signed to a team since 2017, settling his complaints of collusion against the NFL in February 2019.

Without a superstar call, financial backing, or even a receptive media environment, Robinson quickly suffered the consequences of his actions.

“Six months 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 his taxes due to his opposition to US foreign policy.

Speaking to Jet Magazine again, she said, “I didn’t enter my tax return for 1954-1958 because I know a lot of it goes to armaments.

“The US government is very active in atomic bombs and fallout, which is destructive rather than constructive. If I pay income taxes, I am participating in this destruction.”

She was sentenced to one year and one day in prison, but even that didn’t stop her desire to protest.

READ: ‘Felt my body was still capable’: meet moms who hoped to shine at the Olympics

In an act of total non-compliance, she refused all food during her incarceration and was subjected to painful force-feeding.

“She was jailed for these charges and she went on a hunger strike,” Davis said. “While she is on the hunger strike, she likes it to be an athlete, to train.

“She talks about how she mentally goes through the hunger strike using the same thing she uses whether she is training for the high jump or as an athlete.”

His relentless stance led to increased media coverage, a clamor from black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, and protesters poking out outside the courthouse as they saw a local athlete, a high jump star and a possible Olympian wasting away in prison.

“She refused to pay because she said she didn’t want her money to be used to support this war machine,” Davis said. “She again reaffirmed that she has no desire to be a pawn or in any way contribute or enable what the United States is doing.

“In her refusal she keeps doubling down, and that’s why she’s organizing the strike, because the judge says, ‘OK, just pay the fine, we’ll let you out’, and she says, ‘No. To draw attention to the fact that this is unfair, I am not going to eat.

“And so all the pictures we have of her from this trial are that she is being made because she is so emaciated that it is difficult for her to even walk.”

“Disposable persons”

Barely three months into her prison term, Robinson’s challenge finally forced the authorities to release her, according to the National War Fiscal Resistance Coordinating Committee.

However, after the physical suffering she had endured, her athletic career at the national level was effectively over.

“Obviously his athletic career is coming to an end,” said Davis. “Activism has become his main goal.”

Joining a group called the Peacemakers, Robinson continued to oppose segregation and armed conflict.

Arguably, Robinson’s place in history as the first athlete not to defend the US national anthem has been largely forgotten.

“One of the reasons we’re losing his story a bit is that his pacifism and continued activism is starting to eclipse his athleticism,” Davis said.

“When I think of Rose’s story, I think of both how she saw her athleticism inform her activism, and how we lose sports activism stories if they are done by disposable people. , especially black women.

A gender difference

According to another leading scholar – Harry Edwards, founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and professor of sports sociology at Berkley University – militant female athletes are often not mentioned in the same breath as their male peers.

“They and their activist contributions have generally been diminished if not completely dismissed, ignored and forgotten by the sports media and even by many sports historians,” Edwards told CNN Sport.

“And again, I stress this, in keeping with the institutionalized misogyny that permeates sport and society and, too often, even the struggle against sport and the oppressive traditions of society.”

Runway stars like Smith and Carlos, or household names Muhammad Ali and LeBron James, are widely recognized for shining the spotlight on social injustice, but stories like Robinson’s are rarely told.

The same could be said of 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 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico, Smith and Carlos raised their gloved fists in the air as the national anthem played, prompting their withdrawal from the games and death threats.

Tyus dedicated his medals to the pair, while wearing black shorts throughout the Olympics to show his solidarity with them and the Olympic human rights project.

As initial members of the project, Smith and Carlos planned to boycott the games to protest, as Edwards put it, “against the persistent and systemic violation of black human rights in the United States.”

Yet, as Davis points out, neither Tyus nor his female peers were included in the plans and the legacy of their actions since has been marginalized alongside the men.

“They never contacted the women on the track team,” she said. “Tyus was really instrumental in continuing to talk to female athletes to think about how they might demonstrate at the Olympics since they weren’t included in these other organizational discussions.

“When the boycott failed and everyone ended up in Mexico City, there was a collective decision made that everyone was going to protest in their own way.”

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Davis also highlighted Wilma Rudolph, the sprinter who became an international star as the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic – the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay at the 1960 Rome Games.

“She has her notoriety and also her activism, and we are losing that because there is such an effort to erase that from her narrative. She was acclaimed around the world, but as that kind of smiling, benign athlete,” Davis said.

“And so, for black female athletes, if they want to achieve a level of notoriety, it depends so much on performance to be respectable and wise and all of those things that really erase their activism.”

In addition to her passionate activism, Robinson worked as a social worker and died in 1976.