Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of "The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad."
The courage and athletic ability demonstrated by Jackie Robinson in breaking Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947 and making the Brooklyn Dodgers a dominant National League club during the 1950s resulted in the ballplayer’s induction into the pantheon of baseball immortals at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Robinson’s career after he retired from the sport following the 1956 season is, however, less well known, but Robinson’s decision to take an active role in the civil rights movement provides ample proof that the courage displayed on the playing field carried over into the struggle for a democratic nation freed from the scourge of racial discrimination and segregation.
Robinson’s post baseball career advocacy for civil rights is well developed in this collection of the former ballplayer’s columns for the New York Post from 1959 to 1960 and the New York Amsterdam News from 1962 to 1968, both of which offered Robinson national syndication to air his views. This collection of columns is edited by Michael J. Long, an associate professor of religious studies and peace and conflict studies at Elizabethtown College who is the author and editor of several scholarly volumes including First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson (2007), in cooperation with Jackie’s widow Rachel Robinson. Although Robinson enjoyed professional writing assistance at both newspapers, Long persuasively argues that the ideas presented in the columns were those of Robinson who was given considerable freedom to write on a variety of topics, offering considerable insight into his views on American politics and the civil rights movement.
Rather than a straight chronological format, Long arranges the columns around five topics with considerable overlapping themes. The subjects selected by Long are “On Baseball and Golf” -- and it should be noted that Robinson publicly advocated for the racial integration of the Professional Golfers’ Association -- “On Family and Friends,” “On Civil Rights,” “On Peace with Justice,” and “On Politics with Principle.” Long is certainly on target when he observes that the passion exhibited by Robinson on the baseball diamond carried over into his often provocative and outspoken commentaries. Long concludes, “Robinson’s vision of first-class citizenship -- equal justice and dignity for all -- provided both the motivation and the goal not only for many of his columns but also for his everyday life” (152-153).
While as a racial pioneer Robinson was the target of hate groups and recipient of death threats, his basic political philosophy was perhaps a little more conservative than most realize. Essentially, Robinson believed that the individual should be judged by his/her talents and efforts rather than by the color of one’s skin. If discriminatory barriers are removed, the individual may succeed or fail on one’s own merits. And, indeed, in chronicling his own biography, Robinson presented himself as a self-made man who rose from poverty and a broken home to achieve success through hard work and determination. Robinson, however, certainly gave credit to his mother, wife, and Branch Rickey for supporting him in the struggle to shatter baseball’s color barrier.
When discussing the political ideas of Robinson it is important to examine the influence of Rickey who was a father figure to the athlete. Rickey certainly deserves credit for challenging baseball’s discriminatory policies, but he was also a businessman who believed that integration would sell more tickets and place more competitive, profitable teams on the field. In addition to being a conservative businessman opposed to discrimination, Rickey was a Republican and staunch anti-communist. For Rickey, once discriminatory barriers were banished, an individual could rise or fall on his/her own initiative without government intervention. The greatest threat to American democracy was, thus, the types of governmental controls exercised in socialism and communism. The influence of Rickey’s ideology may be perceived in Robinson’s commentaries advocating black capitalism, rather than the democratic socialism of his hero Martin Luther King, Jr. Robinson was also an outspoken opponent of communism who testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950 to refute the views of Paul Robeson (an action he later regretted but as late as 1957 still supported) and embraced the policies of Lyndon Johnson in Southeast Asia. This fundamentally conservative philosophy led Robinson to try and find a home for himself and other African Americans within the Republican Party. It also explains why Robinson was critical of black power and seemingly out of step with increasing black rage and frustration during the late 1960s. Long suggests that Robinson’s columns ended in 1968 because they had simply run their course, yet Robinson was critical of more radical approaches to civil rights and race relations.
In terms of politics, Robinson supported Richard Nixon over John Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential election. Robinson was not impressed with Kennedy’s lack of enthusiasm for the 1957 Civil Rights Bill, as well as his choice of Southerner Lyndon Johnson for his 1960 running mate. On the other hand, Robinson perceived Nixon as more supportive of civil rights that Republican President Dwight Eisenhower of whom Robinson was quite critical. By 1963, however, Robinson was more appreciative of Kennedy’s civil rights record. Robinson, nevertheless, still preferred Republican Nelson Rockefeller, but in his column he called Barry Goldwater a racist and refused to support the 1964 Republican standard bearer. Robinson was impressed with Lyndon Johnson’s record on civil rights and combatting communism in Vietnam. Yet, by the early 1970s he was again flirting with Nixon and had little use for the peace polices of George McGovern in 1972.
Robinson also endorsed the nonviolent tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr., although acknowledging that he would have difficulty in turning the other cheek to bigots. This assertion certainly underscores the difficulty Robinson encountered in following Rickey’s dictate that in the early years of his career, the athlete not fight back when subjected to racial taunts. Robinson’s indignation and anger when provoked by racism was evident in a January 26, 1963 column in which the former ballplayer denounced the segregation of blood supplies which led to the death of a young white boy in Louisiana. Robinson asserted that his patience was exhausted and that the destruction of segregation could not wait, but he was never supportive of what Robinson considered to be more radical and divisive leaders such as Malcolm X. Robinson contended that the separatism preached by Malcolm, whom he referred to as Mr. X in his columns, was setting the civil rights movement back and was perhaps aided by segregationist whites. While defending the right of Muhammad Ali to express his religious and political ideas, Robinson, nevertheless, believed that Ali (whom he continually referred to as Cassius Clay in his commentaries) was being manipulated by the Muslims and should fight to defend his country. Robinson also had little use for black power advocates Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, who was described in a Robinson column as “a sensationalist, dangerous, irresponsible agitator with a talent for igniting fires and then getting himself safely out of the way, leaving the people he agitated to face the flames” (116). Robinson also had little patience with the Black Panthers, complaining about a Eldridge Cleaver poster in his daughter Sharon’s room (Long points out that the poster was actually a Huey Newton photo.).
Despite his disappointment regarding King’s criticism of the Vietnam War, Robinson remained an enthusiastic booster of the minister, asserting, “If ever a man was placed on this earth by divine force to help solve the doubts and ease the hurts and dispel the fears of mortal man, I believe that man is Dr. King “ (113). Following the assassination of King, Robinson called for blacks to abandon desires for revenge and practice King’s dream for racial conciliation and a color-free America as outlined in King’s 1963 March on Washington speech.
We continue to struggle for this dream, and Robinson died before seeing a black manager in Major League Baseball. But Robinson’s courage on the baseball diamond and civil rights arena made America a better place. Robinson was hardly a one-dimensional man, and the columns gathered by Long testify to the complexity of his thoughts and ideas.