Liberation isn’t a one-person sport!
Before Colin Kapernick bent a knee there were athletes leading the charge for racial justice. Today as the WNBA, NBA, and other athletes decide to strike for racial justice we recognize those who led the charge before them.
In 1961, basketball great Bill Russell led a protest when he and his fellow Black Boston Celtics teammates were denied service at a restaurant at a Kentucky hotel. Instead of playing in their scheduled game, Russell and the other Black players took a stance against racial injustice and left.
In 1960, Three-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Wilma Rudolph, refused to participate in a parade following her wins at the Olympics in Rome when she learned it would be segregated, forcing her hometown of Clarksville, Tennesee to have one of the first integrated events in its history. She then went on to participate in protests around the city to end segregation.
In 1996, Star basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was fined and suspended from the Denver Nuggets for sitting out during the national anthem. After the players union got him back on the team, he was eventually traded to the Sacramento Kings, but lost his starting position and never had his contract renewed in 1998, while still being in top form. He lost millions but said he never regrets standing up for what is right. “You can’t be for God and for oppression. It’s clear in the Quran, Islam is the only way,” he said at the time. “I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”
Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson
In 1959, high-jumper, Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson, refused to stand for the national anthem at the Pan American Games. She believed the flag represented war, injustice, and hypocrisy. She was sentenced to a year and a day in prison the next year for not paying her taxes because she said, “I am against my money being used for war purposes.” She continued her political activism after her release working alongside the Peacemakers. She never returned to sports following a hunger strike in jail from which she never full recovered.
In 1967, Muhammad Ali, the prettiest and greatest boxer of all time made the transition from athlete to activist when he refused to be inducted into the Army and serve in the Vietnam war. Ali’s stance was attributed to his religious beliefs and the reality that as a Black man in America, he was fighting against racist forces in his own home. As a result of his decision, he was stripped of his title and was unable to fight from 1967-1970.
In the 1960s, the first American woman to win a medal in the shot put, Earlene Brown, spoke candidly about racism and segregation during Goodwill Trips abroad, and at home.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos
In 1968 track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos won Olympic gold and silver medals respectively in the 200 meters as members of the San Jose State track team. Instead of using their moment on the podium to gloat in their victory or to revel in the fact that Smith had broken the world record, they chose to wear black gloves, raise their fists and bow their heads as a sign of protests and pride. Besides them also stood silver medalist, Peter Norman of Australia, who joined them in their silent protest by wearing a badge for human rights. All three were expelled and ostracized for months and years to come.
In 1968, Wyomia Tyus, the first athlete in Olympic history to win gold medals in consecutive 100-meter events protested at the Olympics wearing black shorts instead of her uniform to support the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which opposed Racial Segregation. “Knowing what it feels like to be discriminated against, growing up in the South, growing up during the Jim Crow era, being a Black woman, being told that muscles are ugly … to me, that was part of my protest,” she said. “This is to show people all the things [they] say are not true.”
Thank you for the sacrifices you made to take a stand.
Photo Credit: The Washington Post/Timeline-Medium/The Undefeated/Laurie Toby Edison/ The Guardian/BlackThen/The New York Times/Progressive.org