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.
“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.
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.
In an act of total noncompliance, she refused all nourishment while imprisoned and was subjected to painful force feeding.
“She was brought to jail on these charges and she staged a hunger strike,” said Davis. “While she’s staging the hunger strike, she’s likening this to being an athlete, to training.
“She’s talking about how she’s mentally getting through the hunger strike by using the same thing that she uses if she’s training for the high jump or as an athlete.”
Her unrelenting stance led to increased media coverage, a clamor from Black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, and protesters picketing outside the courthouse as they saw a local athlete, high jump star and possible Olympian wasting away in prison.
“She refused to pay because she said she didn’t want her money to go towards supporting this war machine,” said Davis. “She again reiterated that she had no desire to be a pawn or in any way contribute or enable what the United States was doing.
“In her refusal, she keeps doubling down on it, and this is why she stages the strike, because the judge is saying, ‘OK, just pay the fine, we’ll let you out,’ and she’s saying: ‘No. To draw attention to how unjust this is, I’m not going to eat.’
“And so all the pictures we have of her from that trial are her being carried out because she’s so emaciated that it’s difficult for her to even walk.”
Only three months into her prison sentence, Robinson’s defiance ultimately forced the authorities to release her, according to the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee.
However, after the physical suffering she had endured, her sporting career at the national level was effectively over.
“By all accounts her athletic career ends,” said Davis. “Activism became her main focus.”
Joining up with a group called the Peacemakers, Robinson continued to oppose segregation and armed conflicts.
Arguably Robinson’s place in history as the first athlete to not stand for the US national anthem has been largely forgotten.
“One of the reasons why we lose her story a little bit is because her pacifism and her continued activism starts overshadowing her athletics,” said Davis.
“When I think about Rose’s story, I think about both the way she saw her athletics informing her activism, and how we lose stories of athletic activism if they’re by disposable people, especially Black women.”
A gendered difference
According to another leading academic — Harry Edwards, the founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and professor of sports sociology at Berkley University — female activist athletes are often not mentioned in the same breath as their male peers.
“And again, I emphasize, consistent with the institutionalized misogyny that pervades sport and society and, all too often, even the struggle against sports and society’s oppressive traditions.”
Fellow track stars like Smith and Carlos, or household names Muhammad Ali and LeBron James, are widely recognized for shining a spotlight on social injustice, but stories such as Robinson’s are rarely told.
The same could be said for 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 Summer Olympics in Mexico in 1968, Smith and Carlos raised their gloved fists into the air as the National Anthem played, prompting their removal from the games and death threats.
Tyus dedicated her medals to the pair, while wearing black shorts throughout the Olympics to show her solidarity with them and the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
As initial members of the project, Smith and Carlos had planned to boycott the games to protest, as Edwards stated, “the persistent and systemic violation of Black people’s human rights in the United States.”
Yet, as Davis points out, neither Tyus nor her female peers were included in the plans and the legacy of their actions since has been marginalized next to the men.
“They never reached out to the women on the track team,” she said. “Tyus was really instrumental in continuing to talk to the women athletes to think about how they might protest at the Olympic Games since they weren’t included in these other organizational discussions.
“When the boycott fell through and everybody ended up in Mexico City, there was a collective decision made that everybody was going to protest in their own way.”
Davis also pointed to Wilma Rudolph, the sprinter who became an international star as the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics — the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay at the 1960 Rome Games.
“She has her notoriety and also her activism, and we lose that because there’s such an effort to erase that from her narrative. She had acclaim worldwide, but as this kind of smiling, benign athlete,” said Davis.
“And so, for Black women athletes, if they are going to reach a level of notoriety, it’s conditioned so much on the performance of being respectable and demure and all of these things that really erases their activism.”
As well as her passionate activism, Robinson worked as a social worker, and died in 1976.