Over a half a century
before Colin Kaepernick
refused to stand for the US national anthem, track and field star Eroseanna "Rose" Robinson was consumed by the need to challenge injustice, but her courageous story has been largely overlooked in the pages of history that have often focused attention instead on athletic peers Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Born in 1925, Robinson excelled at Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) track events in the 1940s before developing into a leading high jumper, winning at the National AAU Championships in 1958 and joining the US Track and Field team thereafter.
Activism was already part of her life -- through the 50s, she had been prominent in direct action de-segregation protests, including one at a skate rink in Cleveland.
"Rose was really effective at the skate-ins because she was a great athlete," Dr. Amira Rose Davis, professor of history and African American studies at Penn State University, told CNN Sport.
"Because she was so agile, she could evade the White patrons who tried to stop her.
"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."
As part of the US women's track team in 1958, Robinson was invited to compete in the then Soviet Union, when 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 athletics have political connotations. In other words, I don't want to be used as a political pawn."
"She quite publicly sent the invite back," said Davis. "She was hypercritical of the government, the treatment of people by the government, but also foreign policy under the Cold War and the United States kind of trying to clean up its image."
The following year, at the Pan-American Games, when "The Star Spangled Banner" was played, Robinson remained seated.
In an article
in Zora, Davis explains how, to Robinson, "the anthem and the flag represented war, injustice, and hypocrisy."
This was 57 years before Kaepernick knelt during the anthem to protest police brutality -- and was an unprecedented act of bravery and defiance from a young Black woman.
Kaepernick, who was playing for the San Francisco 49ers when he knelt during the anthem in 2016, has been unsigned to a team since 2017, settling his collusion grievance cases against the NFL in February 2019.
Without superstar appeal, financial support, or even a receptive media environment, Robinson soon suffered the consequences of her actions.
"Half a year 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 her taxes due to her opposition to American foreign policy.
Speaking to Jet Magazine again, she said: "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."
She was sentenced to a year and a day in jail, but even that did not stop her desire to protest.