Even though Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since 2016, he still looms large over the league. Some people believe he has been blackballed from the league for starting the movement of players kneeling during the playing of the national anthem as a way of silently protesting racial injustice in America.
While Kaepernick is largely the face of protesting in modern sports, he’s far from the first athlete to engage in such activity. Long before Kaepernick was a household name, high jumper Rose Robinson showed similar dissent involving the anthem.
Rose Robinson’s family and background
Zora tells us the story of Rose Robinson, born in 1925 as the middle child of a lower middle-class family on Chicago’s South Side. Her father’s job as a mail carrier allowed the family to move to the Englewood neighborhood as it was starting to see the effects of white flight.
The move put Robinson and her sisters within walking distance of Copernicus Playground and Recreation Center, where they were active as track athletes.
Participating in sports help give Robinson a sense of focus and confidence, which helped her in adulthood as a social worker, and also helped get her involved in the civil rights movement.
Rose Robinson protests the anthem at the Pan American Games
Robinson continued to compete in track and field, and by the late ’50s she was among the top high jumpers on the AAU circuit, winning the AAU national championship in 1958.
She was named to the National Women’s Track and Field team, and the predominantly Black team was scheduled to go to Russia to compete in a State Department track meet intended to use Black labor to advance Cold War policy abroad.
Robinson refused to make the trip, telling reporters she wouldn’t be used as “a political pawn” — putting her at odds with the AAU and the State Department.
In the summer of 1959, the Pan American Games were held in Chicago, and Robinson was one of the competitors. When the national anthem started to play inside Soldier Field during the opening ceremony, the crowd rose to its feet — but Robinson remained seated, believing that the American flag and anthem represented “war, injustice, and hypocrisy.”
The consequences of protesting
Freedom of speech gives Americans the right to protest as they wish, but that doesn’t mean their actions don’t have consequences. Kaepernick is a good example of that.
While NFL owners would never admit it, it is possible that the reason Kaepernick hasn’t been signed by a team in several years could be because of the controversy surrounding him and his kneeling for the anthem.
An NPR roundtable discussed how taking a stand for justice could affect the careers of Black athletes. Among the talking points was that taking a political stand could lead to some people, including former President Donald Trump, questioning the athletes’ love for their country and citizenship, as well as calling for them to be released from their teams and not allowed to play in their leagues anymore.
Another early Black athlete who protested
Robinson wasn’t the only early Black athlete to protest for racial equality. Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, which gave her a platform through which to call for an end to racism.
When Rudolph returned home to Clarksville, Tenn., following the Olympics, the city celebrated Welcome Wilma Day with a day filled with festivities honoring her. Among the activities were a homecoming parade and banquet, which she insisted on being open to everyone.
Thus, those events became the first fully integrated municipal events in Clarksville history. Her activism continued, and in 1963 she participated in a civil rights protest to desegregate a restaurant in the city.