Wilma Rudolph, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones and Martha Hudson at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
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antecedent / culture

Black Athletes, Anthem Protests, and the Spectacle of Patriotism

The NFL's response to player protests reflects decades of League and U.S. attempts to portray false images of post-racial harmony.
The new NFL anthem policy requires players to stand during the national anthem or face a fine. This decision is aimed at curtailing peaceful protest and capitulating to the President, a portion of their perceived fan base, and corporate sponsors. What is perhaps more significant, however, is that the new policy underscores how sports is often used to sell a particular brand of American values and politics. This strategy has been employed by government agencies and professional leagues for decades.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the State Department sponsored Goodwill Trips abroad as a key effort to bolster global perceptions of the United States during the Cold War. The U.S. government sought to capitalize on Black musicians, artists, and athletes who would offer “living proof…of the great progress achieved by the race under the American democratic system.” The United States Information Agency (USIA) identified sports as a particularly useful vehicle for Cold War propaganda because sports were supposedly apolitical, and athletes were seen as less likely to be outspoken–particularly Black women. Athletes such as Bill Russell, Wilma Rudolph, and Earlene Brown quickly disabused the USIA of that notion when they spoke candidly on racism and the persistence of segregation both during and after their respective trips abroad.

High jumper Eroseanna “Rose” Robinson declined all together to participate in the goodwill trips. After a successful Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) meeting in 1958, Robinson was selected to participate in a State Department-sponsored track meet in Moscow. Robinson had no interest in helping the State Department use Black athletic labor to advance Cold War politics. She told reporters that she “refused to be a political pawn.” At the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago a year later, she refused to stand for the national anthem.
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