It is a sad irony that we tend to think of Jackie Robinson in the faded tones of old newsreel footage. Sixty years ago, he broke baseball's color barrier, pointing the way toward an integrated America in which citizens are given equal opportunity regardless of race. That episode has justifiably become a part of our folklore, even if we have failed to live up to its promise. For baseball, it is a feel-good story ripe for exploitation by the game's nostalgia industrial complex. No other sport depends quite so dependably on its own mythology, and in this troubled year, with baseball's most cherished record snatched by a truculent black star accused of cheating, it has been especially dependent.
The real Jackie Robinson was not one for gauzy platitudes and shades of gray. His life was defined by the struggle for civil rights, and his intellectual spectrum was dominated by two hues: black and white. Robinson was famously willing to bear racist attacks without responding early in his career to ensure the success of integration, but his silence was short-lived. "I paid more than my dues for the right to call it like I see it," he wrote to a literary agent in 1970, pitching his autobiography. "And I could care less if people like me, so long as they respect me." Robinson is beloved today, but his work to advance civil rights in the political arena has been largely forgotten. A new collection of his correspondence, compiled by Michael G. Long, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, should help change that. "First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson" reveals a man unfamiliar to those who know him primarily as a pioneering ballplayer.
Robinson actually began calling it like he saw it while still playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his words did not always engender respect. His formal political engagement began with an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949, at which he chastised the entertainer and activist Paul Robeson for suggesting that African Americans, subjugated at home, would be unwilling to fight the Soviet Union. Robinson had reformed baseball from within and approached the American political system in the same, essentially conservative manner.
Although he professed allegiance to no political party -- "I am able to look at the man and go from there," he wrote -- he often used his considerable influence as a national figure to support Republicans. That support came with strings, as Dwight Eisenhower discovered in 1957, when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to block desegregation in Little Rock. Robinson wrote to Eisenhower demanding intervention: "It appears to me now, Mr. President, that under the circumstances the prestige of your office must be exerted. A mere statement that you don't like violence is not enough."
That phrasing is typical. Though Robinson often worked with a ghostwriter, even in his correspondence, his voice was unmistakable. He wrote like he played ball: with absolute confidence and a cutting aggression.
Robinson was disenchanted with Eisenhower, but he latched onto his vice president, Richard Nixon, who promised a more vigorous civil rights policy if elected in 1960. Robinson supported Nixon in his campaign against John F. Kennedy, despite efforts to bring Robinson into the Kennedy fold. A private meeting with Kennedy in June 1960 was a disaster. Robinson found an unprepared Kennedy disconcertingly evasive and suspected a deal in the works with the Dixiecrats. Meanwhile, Nixon's advocacy of civil rights causes, in words if not deeds, impressed Robinson. "There is something about him that leaves me with the feeling of sincerity," he wrote to his friend, the Democratic operative Chester Bowles. "To this date, I don't have the same feeling regarding Kennedy."
Those feelings would change. In June 1963, he commended Kennedy's statesmanship in an open letter. A few days later, following the assassination of Medgar Evers, Robinson sent Kennedy a telegram, imploring him to "utilize every federal facility to protect a man sorely needed for this era," namely the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Whatever their political differences, America's two most prominent civil rights figures, Robinson and King, held each other in mutual high esteem. In addition to his fundraising for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Robinson made it a point to stump for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "I don't know what we would have done throughout these past years without your ardent support and interest," King wrote to Robinson after an SCLC dinner in October 1964. "[I]t pleases me to say that you have continued to give the kind of leadership throughout your career that we are proud to be identified with. This is certainly an important contribution to mankind as a whole and especially to Negro people, who too often must see their heroes of their youth tarnished by selfish compromises and mediocre judgment."
There were those who saw only compromise and poor judgment. During his ball-playing days, letters from white racists were frequent. Now, he was the target of black militants. In an open letter published in November 1963, Malcolm X wrote: "I sincerely fear, good Friend Jackie, that if the whites do murder you, you are still gullible enough to die thinking they are still your white friends, and that the dagger in your back is only an accident!" Robinson replied with characteristic dignity: "I reject your racist views. . . . I shall always be happy to associate myself with decent Americans of either race who believe in justice for all."
Robinson refused to surrender his moral authority, even as his erstwhile political allies lost theirs. He wrote Nixon a disillusioned letter in 1972. "[Y]ou are polarizing this country to such an extent there can be no turning back. . . ," he admonished. "I hope you will take another look at where we are going and be the president who leads the nation to accept difficult but necessary action, rather than one who fosters division."
Robinson died a few months later. At the time, he was less than sanguine about the nation's future. "I cannot possibly believe that I have made it while so many black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity as they live in slums or barely exist on welfare," he wrote in his autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," published that same year.
The Jackie Robinson story didn't come with the happiest of endings. Perhaps that's its most important lesson.