How politics played a major role in the signing of Jackie Robinson

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tags: Jackie Robinson



Chris Lamb, Professor of Journalism, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Communist activists demanding desegregation of baseball march during a New York City May Day parade. National Endowment for the Humanities


... Rickey certainly deserves credit for confronting his fellow owners and their racist attitudes by signing Robinson and, in doing so, advancing the cause of civil rights. 

However, there is more to this story than Rickey and Robinson. In fact, the desegregation of baseball came after a decade-long campaign by black and left wing journalists and activists, which I detail in my book Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball.

Beginning in the 1930s, black sportswriters, notably Wendell Smith and Sam Lacy, made baseball part of a larger crusade to confront Jim Crow laws. 

Their columns galvanized support among their readers, and their interviews with white major leaguers demonstrated that many players had no objections to playing with blacks. 

Black sportswriters, however, had little influence among white politicians and legislators. 

This wasn’t the case for white political progressives. 

The collapse of America’s economy during the Depression created a hunger for radical politics. The United States Communist Party sought to recruit blacks, in particular, because of the severity of racism in the United States. And communists believed they could win the hearts and minds of black Americans if they could desegregate professional baseball, which had prohibited blacks since the 19th century.

The Communist newspaper The Daily Worker, which was published in New York City, began campaigning for integration in baseball shortly after Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Sportswriters for The Daily Worker, including sports editor Lester Rodney, compared the racism in Nazi Germany to the racism in the United States. 

During the next decade, that paper published hundreds of columns and articles calling for the desegregation of baseball. Its sportswriters excoriated the baseball establishment for perpetuating the color ban and pressured major league owners to give tryouts to black ballplayers.

At the same time, labor unions organized picket lines and petition drives outside major league ballparks, collecting more than a million signatures. In July 1940, the Trade Union Athletic Association organized an “End Jim Crow in Baseball” demonstration at the New York World’s Fair.

The radical left also had friends in New York politics. ...





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