Jackie Robinson: A Legacy of Activism

AP Photo

Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers infielder, is photographed during spring training at Vero Beach, Florida, March 1956. 

Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Jackie Robinson. On July 6, 1944, Robinson—a 25-year army lieutenant—boarded a military bus at Fort Hood, Texas with the light-skinned wife of another black officer and sat down next to her in the middle of the vehicle. “Hey you, sittin’ beside that woman,” the driver yelled. “Get to the back of the bus.” Robinson refused, knowing that buses had been officially desegregated on military bases. When the driver threatened to have him arrested, Robinson shook his finger in the driver’s face and told him, “quit fucking with me.” Two military policemen soon arrived and escorted Robinson away. 

He faced trumped-up charges of insubordination, disturbing the peace, drunkenness, conduct unbecoming an officer, insulting a civilian woman, and refusing to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer. Unlike the routine mistreatment of many black soldiers in the Jim Crow military, Robinson’s court-martial trial, on August 2, 1944, triggered news stories in the Negro press and protests by the NAACP. Voting by secret ballot, the nine military judges found Robinson not guilty. By November, he was honorably discharged from the Army.

Describing the ordeal, Robinson later wrote, “It was a small victory, for I had learned that I was in two wars, one against the foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home.”

Had Robinson lost his case and been dishonorably discharged, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey would not have picked him to break major league baseball’s color line. And America would have been deprived of one of its greatest pioneers for racial justice. Indeed, whenever someone is identified as the first person to break a barrier, that individual is typically called that group’s Jackie Robinson.

Robinson had a hot temper and little tolerance for bigotry. The grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper, Robinson was 14 months old in 1920 when his mother moved her five children from Cairo, Georgia, to Pasadena, a wealthy, conservative Los Angeles suburb. During Robinson’s youth, black residents, who represented a small portion of the city’s population, were treated as second-class citizens. Blacks were allowed to swim in the municipal pool only on Wednesdays (the day the water was changed) and could use the YMCA only one day a week. Robinson learned at an early age that athletic success did not guarantee social or political acceptance. When his older brother Mack returned from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with a silver medal in track, he got no hero’s welcome. The only job the college-educated Mack would find was as a street sweeper and ditch digger.

Robinson probably avoided a conviction at his court-martial trial because he was already a celebrity. He’d been a star athlete at Pasadena Junior College before enrolling at UCLA, where he became its first four-sport athlete (football, basketball, track, and baseball), twice led basketball’s Pacific Coast League in scoring, won the NCAA broad jump championship, and became an All-American football player. 

The story of the dismantling of baseball’s apartheid system, as portrayed in most films and books, is typically told as a tale of two trailblazers—Robinson, the combative athlete, and Branch Rickey, the shrewd strategist—who battled baseball's, and society's, bigotry. It is true that Rickey had long wanted to hire black players, both for moral reasons and because he believed it would boost ticket sales among the growing number of African Americans who lived in big cities. But Rickey's plan came after more than a decade of efforts by black and left-wing journalists and activists to desegregate the national pastime. 

Beginning in the 1930s, the Negro press, civil rights groups, the Communist Party, progressive white activists, left-wing unions, and radical politicians waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball. They published open letters to baseball owners, polled white managers and players (most of whom said that they had no objections to playing with African Americans), brought black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring training camps, picketed at baseball stadiums in New York and Chicago, gathered signatures on petitions, and kept the issue before the public. Several white journalists for mainstream papers joined the chorus for baseball integration. In 1945, the New York State legislature passed the Quinn-Ives Act, which banned discrimination in hiring, and soon formed a committee to investigate discriminatory hiring practices, including one that focused on baseball. In short order, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia established a Committee on Baseball to push the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers to sign black players. Left-wing Congressman Vito Marcantonio, who represented Harlem, called for an investigation of baseball's racist practices.

This protest movement—part of a broader postwar movement for civil rights—set the stage for Robinson’s entrance into the major leagues in 1947. At the time, America was a deeply segregated nation. The previous year, at least six African-Americans had been lynched in the South. Restrictive covenants were still legal, barring blacks (and Jews) from buying homes in many neighborhoods, not just in the South. Only a handful of blacks were enrolled in the nation’s predominantly white colleges and universities. There were only two blacks in Congress. No big city had a black mayor.

Rickey's scouts identified Robinson, who was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, as a potential barrier breaker. Rickey could have chosen other Negro League players with more talent, experience, or name recognition, such as Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson, but he wanted someone who could be, in today's terms, a role model. He knew that if the experiment failed, it would set back the cause integration for years. 

Robinson was young, articulate, and well educated. Although Pasadena was rigidly segregated, Robinson had formed friendships with his white neighbors and classmates in high school and college. Rickey knew Robinson had a hot temper and strong political views, but he believed the young player could handle the emotional pressure and help the Dodgers on the field. Robinson promised Rickey that, for at least his rookie year, he would not respond to the verbal barbs and physical abuse he would face on a daily basis. After his initial year establishing himself, though, Robinson unleashed his temper. He fought constantly with umpires and opposing players. 

Robinson spent his major league career (1947 to 1956) with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was chosen Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949. An outstanding base runner, with a .311 lifetime batting average, he led the Dodgers to six pennants and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Off the field, he was outspoken—in speeches, interviews, and his regular newspaper column—against racial injustice. He viewed his sports celebrity as a platform from which to challenge American racism. During his playing career, he was constantly criticized for being so frank about race relations in baseball and in society. Many sportswriters and most other players—including some of his fellow black players, content simply to be playing in the majors—considered Robinson too angry and vocal.

His success on the baseball diamond was a symbol of the promise of a racially integrated society. It is difficult today to summon the excitement and fervor that greeted Robinson’s achievement. He did more than change the way baseball is played and who plays it. His actions on and off the diamond helped pave the way for America to confront its racial hypocrisy. The dignity with which Robinson handled his encounters with racism among fellow players and fans—and in hotels, restaurants, trains, and other public places—drew public attention to the issue, stirred the consciences of many white Americans, and gave black Americans a tremendous boost of pride and self-confidence. Martin Luther King Jr. once told Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, “You’ll never know what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job.”

Robinson’s political views reflected the tensions of Cold War liberalism. In 1949 Rickey orchestrated Robinson’s appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee so that he could publicly criticize Paul Robeson, who had stirred controversy by stating in a Paris speech that American blacks would not fight in a war with Russia. As expected, Robinson challenged Robeson’s patriotism. “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 for a siren song sung in bass,” Robinson said.

But Robinson also seized the opportunity, a decade before the heyday of civil rights activism, to make an impassioned demand for social justice and racial integration. “I’m not fooled because I’ve had a chance open to very few Negro Americans,” Robinson said to Congress. The press focused on Robinson’s criticism of Robeson and virtually ignored his denunciation of American racism.

Years later, Robinson said he regretted his remarks about Robeson. “I have grown wiser and closer to the painful truth about America’s destructiveness,” he acknowledged. “And I do have an increased respect for Paul Robeson, who sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.”

After he retired from baseball, Robinson lent his name and prestige to several business ventures, including a construction company and a black-owned bank in Harlem. He got involved in these business activities primarily to help address the shortage of affordable housing and the persistent redlining (lending discrimination against racial minorities) by white-owned banks. Both the construction company and the Harlem bank later fell on hard times and may have dimmed Robinson’s confidence in black capitalism as a strategy for racial advancement and integration.

Nevertheless, Robinson’s views led him into several controversial political alliances. In 1960 he initially supported Senator Hubert H. Humphrey’s campaign for president, but when John F. Kennedy won the Democratic Party nomination, Robinson shocked his black and liberal fans by endorsing and campaigning for Richard Nixon. He came to regret that support. He later worked as an aide to New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the last of the high-ranking liberal Republicans who supported activist government and civil rights.

Robinson was a constant presence on picket lines and at rallies on behalf of civil rights. He was one of the NAACP’s best fundraisers, but he resigned from the organization in 1967, criticizing it for its failure to involve “younger, more progressive voices.” In 1968, Robinson publicly supported American track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith who, standing on their victory stand during the Mexico City Olympic Games, raised their fists during the national anthem to protest U.S. racism.

As he grew older, Robinson became more impatient with the slow progress against racism in sports and society. In 1952, five years after he had broken baseball’s color barrier, only six of major league baseball’s 16 teams had a black player. It was not until 1959 that the last holdout, the Boston Red Sox, brought an African American onto its roster.

In the 16 years he lived after his retirement in 1956, Robinson pushed baseball to hire blacks as managers and executives. He refused to participate in a 1969 Old Timers game because he did not yet see “genuine interest in breaking the barriers that deny access to managerial and front office positions.” At his final public appearance, throwing the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, shortly before he died, Robinson accepted a plaque honoring the 25th anniversary of his MLB debut, then observed: “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”

The black players who followed Robinson shattered the stereotype—once widespread among many team owners, sportswriters and white fans—that there weren’t many African Americans “qualified” to play at the major-league level. Between 1949 and 1960, black players won eight out of 12 Rookie of the Year awards, and nine out of 12 Most Valuable Player awards in the National League, which was much more integrated than the American League. Many former Negro League players were perennial All-Stars.

But academic studies conducted from the 1960s through the 1990s uncovered persistent discrimination in baseball. They found that teams were likely to favor a weak-hitting white player over a weak-hitting black player as a utility man. And even the best black players had fewer and less lucrative commercial endorsements than their white counterparts.

No major league team had a black manager until Frank Robinson was hired by the Cleveland Indians in 1975. The majors’ first black general manager—the Atlanta Braves’ Bill Lucas—wasn’t hired until 1977. In 2009, 10 of MLB’s 30 managers were black or Latino. Last season, that number had dwindled to four. But two of them—Alex Cora of the Red Sox and Dave Roberts of the Dodgers—led their teams into the World Series.  Today, only four people of color serve as general managers of baseball’s 30 major league teams, accordingto the latest report by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. Among teams’ management-level positions, 22 percent are held by people of color. Arturo Moreno, a Latino who has owned the Los Angeles Angels since 2003, is the only person of color who is the majority owner of an MLB team. Two African Americans—Derek Jeter and Earvin “Magic” Johnson—are part owners of the Miami Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively. 

According to the TIDES report, in 2017 players of color represented 42.5 percentof Major League rosters. Black athletes represented only 7.7 percentof Major League players—a dramatic decline from the peak of 27 percentin 1975, and less than half the 19percent in1995. Their shrinking proportion is due primarily to the growing number of Latino (31.9 percent) and Asian (1.9 percent) players, including the many foreign-born athletes (29.8 percent)now populating Major League rosters. 

There are also sociological and economic reasons for the decline of black ball players. The semi-pro, sandlot and industrial teams that once thrived in black communities, serving as feeders to the Negro Leagues and then the Major Leagues, have disappeared. Basketball and football have replaced baseball as the most popular sports in black communities, where funding for public school baseball teams and neighborhood playgrounds with baseball fields has declined. Major League teams more actively recruit young players from Latin America, who are typically cheaper to hire than black Americans, as Adrian Burgos, in Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (2007) and Rob Ruck, in Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (2012) document.

In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s rookie season, Major League Baseball retired his number—42—for all teams. Now, every player on every team wears that number once a year—on April 15, the anniversary of Robinson’s first game with the Dodgers. This year MLB, in partnership with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, will sponsor a year-long schedule of activities to honor Robinson, including traveling exhibits, support for youth baseball in inner city neighborhoods, and fundraising efforts to expand the foundation’s college scholarship program. The Jackie Robinson Museum is scheduled to open in Manhattan in December. 

These commemorations of Robinson’s life are needed, especially for younger generations.  But these celebrations should also remind us that Robinson did not think that his own success was evidence that America has achieved racial equality.   

“I cannot possibly believe,” Robinson wrote in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, published shortly before he died of a heart attack at age 53 in 1972, “that I have it made 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.”

Although professional baseball players have generally been conservative and cautious, some MLB athletes—including Curt Flood, Bill Lee, Jim Bouton, Carlos Delgado, and Roberto Clemente—have followed Robinson’s example of speaking out on political and social issues. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Clemente and his Pittsburgh Pirates teammates voted to sit out the opening game after Commissioner William Eckert left it to teams to decide whether to play or cancel games scheduled for the day of King’s funeral five days later. “We are doing this because we white and black players respect what Dr. King has done for mankind,” players said in statement. After players on other teams followed the Pirates’ lead, Eckert announced that the season openers would be held the day after King’s funeral.

President Donald Trump has inspired a new wave of protest by MLB players. Pitcher Sean Doolittle, outfielder Dexter Fowler, and catcher Bruce Maxwell have spoken out against Trump’s hostile rhetoric toward immigrants, African Americans, and Muslims. Houston Astro players Carlos Beltrán and Carlos Correa, both natives of Puerto Rico, skipped the team’s visit to the White House last year to celebrate their World Series victory to express their dismay with Trump’s recovery efforts after the hurricane devastated the island. Red Sox slugger Mookie Betts, the American League MVP, and Sox third baseman Rafael Devers recently announced that they won’t go to the White House with the team in May to celebrate its World Series victory. 

Basketball and football players have been much more likely to raise their voices in social protest, perhaps because both sports have much higher proportions of African American players.  As yet there are no contemporary baseball counterparts to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who helped spark a national movement among athletes by refusing to stand for the National Anthem to protest racial injustice, as well as outspoken athletes like NFL defensive end Michael Bennett and NBA stars LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Last year, a large group of NFL Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles players—including most of its black players—said they were skipping the White House victory ceremony with Trump.  Trump, in response, withdrew his invitation.  In the past two years, the NBA champion Golden State Warrior also refused to join Trump for a White House photo-op. Earlier this month, the Warriors traveled to Washington, D.C., but met with former President Barack Obama instead of Trump. 

Robinson would be heartened by the upsurge of activism among professional athletes. His legacy reminds us of the unfinished agenda of the civil rights revolution and of the important role that protest movements play in moving the country closer to its ideals. 

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