On a Saturday evening in February of 1966, over a thousand mostly white Republican men and women crowded into a Cleveland hotel banquet hall, eager to hear Jackie Robinson’s opening keynote for the annual Ohio Republican Conference. The baseball icon-turned-political activist did not disappoint.
“I am not what is known as a good Republican,” Robinson declared, upon taking the stage. “I am certainly not a safe Republican. I am weary of the black man going hat in hand, shoulders hunched and knee pads worn, to ‘Uncle Tom’ to the enemies of our progress.”
In the context of today’s political chaos, Jackie Robinson’s militant pronouncements feel alien, especially when surveying the racial wreckage of the modern GOP. The Republican Party’s approach to race right now can best be described as anarchy, as Donald Trump gleefully turns dog-whistle politics into full-blown nuclear alarm.
As party leaders scramble to address the Trump invasion, they’ve sidestepped accountability for the GOP’s role in creating the current climate. Largely absent in all of this are the voices of the party’s racial minorities. A few scattered examples have emerged to critique both Trump and the GOP at large, but none have done it with the comprehensive ferocity that rivals that of Jackie Robinson.
For years, conservatives have tried to claim the political legacy of Robinson without acknowledging his actual complicated “militant” politics. Although he campaigned as an independent for Richard Nixon in 1960, later changing his affiliation to Republican, and forged a close working relationship with New York Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Robinson was always cagey about his GOP identification.
“I’m a black man first,” he once calmly stated, while appearing on a 1968 television program, “an American second and then I will support a political party—third.” ...