This Sunday, April 15, Major League Baseball will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day by commemorating the 60th anniversary of the breaking of the game’s color barrier. In my hometown of Stamford, CT, where he spent the last twelve years of his life, there is a statue of Robinson which calls to mind the annual jazz festivals he held at his home to raise money for civil rights causes and the dignity of the man himself.
Much has been written of Robinson’s storied career and the obstacles he faced with much courage throughout his life in baseball. Often ignored — in the manner of a particularly annoying relative — are his political views. Why is this? Because, although he was aligned with many of the giants of the civil rights movement, he was his own man. A man whose beliefs spoke to what many today would consider some inconvenient truths.
John Roosevelt Robinson was, in the most literal sense, a Rockefeller Republican whose party affiliation should be a reminder that it was the Democrats of the South, the Dixiecrats, who stood in the Congressional doorway of racial integration. He was an anti-Communist and an ardent capitalist who believed that, given the chance, racial equality might be advanced through hard work:
How much more effective our demands for a piece of the action would be if we were negotiating from the strength of our own self reliance rather than stating our case in the role of a beggar or someone out for charity. We live in a materialistic society in which money doesn’t only talk â€” it screams.
Echoing Martin Luther King he once wrote, “We ask for nothing special, we ask only that we be permitted to live as you live, and as our nation’s Constitution provides.” This desire to achieve equality through conventional means often put him at loggerheads with the more radical figures of the movement. An extremely wise man of foresight, he was derided for comments like “Stokely Carmichael’s version of Black Power can only get us more George Wallaces elected to office.”
He thought Malcolm X a talented man with a message of promise but disdained his philosophy of hate. He castigated him for suggesting that blacks like U.N. Ambassador Ralph Bunche had “sold out,” saying, “Malcolm is very militant on Harlem street corners where militancy is not dangerous,” but that he lacked “one-twentieth of the integrity and leadership” of a man like Bunche.
And, in a quote you’re not likely to read every day, he later chastised his friend King for his opposition to the Vietnam War saying, “Why is it, Martin, that you seem to ignore the blood which is upon [Communist] hands and to speak only of the ‘guilt’ of the United States?”
One of his most notorious clashes came with Paul Robeson, the famous black activist, athlete, and basso profundo who was a well-known devotee of Josef Stalin, which earned him the Lenin Peace Prize in 1952. In 1949 he declared before a leftist audience in Paris: “It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country [the Soviet Union] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.”
After Robeson became a target of those who recognized the threat posed to the U.S. by Soviet Communism, Jackie Robinson testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities where he predicted (correctly, of course) that blacks would, “do their best to help their country win the war against Russia or any other enemy that threatened us.” Although later in life he wrote that he regretted it, he honed in on Robeson almost poetically:
I can’t speak for any 15,000,000 people any more than any other one person can, but I know that I’ve got too much invested for my wife and child and myself in the future of this country, and I and other Americans of many races and faiths have too much invested in our country’s welfare, for any of us to throw it away because of a siren song sung in bass.
For this Robinson has, of course, been tagged with the trite and predictable Uncle Tom label. Yet he was just as passionate in decrying Jim Crow as he was the Communists, but he was wise enough to see that this country afforded the opportunity for the defeat of the former. At the same hearing he continued:
But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop fighting race discrimination in this country until we’ve got it licked. It means that we’re going to fight it all the harder because our stake in the future is so big. We can win our fight without the Communists and we don’t want their help.
Too many modern black athletes admire Robinson, but do not worship him as they do the more radical Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X said, “Cassius Clay is our hero. He’s the first real black sports hero. Jackie Robinson is a white man’s hero.” On Sunday, contrary to those who find it easier to hate than to love, all America will celebrate her hero.