Jackie Robinson: baseball, the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter strikes

By Jon Gamble | 12 April 2021

Jackie Robinson in action

Racism is America’s pastime, not baseball.
–– Jules Tygiel (historian)

US athletes led a series of protests and strikes against racism and police violence on 28 August 2020, the scale and militancy of which has no historic parallels in US history. The fact that a wave of protests broke out on the date that was marking Jackie Robinson Day seemed apt.

Jackie Robinson was one of the US’s greatest baseball players, who broke the colour bar in the Major League Baseball (MLB) when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers on 15 April 1947. The MLB had relegated black players to the “Negro Leagues” since the 1880s. As no games were played on 15 April 2020, Jackie Robinson Day was postponed until 28 August, the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The spark for the strikes and protests was the shooting of Jacob S. Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin on 23 August 2020. Blake was shot in the back four times (a further three shots missed him) when he opened the driver’s seat of a SUV; three of Blake’s sons were in the backseat at the time. Kenosha exploded when a pro-police, pro-Trump juvenile vigilante killed a further two Black Lives Matter demonstrators and injured a third.

The shooting of Jacob followed a summer of unrest – the police had already shot and killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd earlier that year.

These protests, under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM) included taking-the-knee rallies, direct action, marches and riots, were at a level of participation – including thousands of young white people – not seen in America since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

On 26 August 2020, a strike against police racism started in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and rapidly spread throughout other US sports. The Milwaukee Bucks (whose home stadium is down the road from Kenosha) refused to leave their locker room ahead of their play-off fixture against opponents, Orlando Magic.

Within 24 hours all the NBA play-off games had been postponed. World number one tennis champion Naomi Osaka pulled out of the Western and Southern Open tournament. “Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman,” Osaka said. “And as a Black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need attention, rather than watching me play tennis.” Osaka was challenging the historic and histrionic sanctity of US sports as an arena above and beyond politics.

Tennis players supporting BLM (Naomi Osaka centre) – pic credit Pop Sugar.

Jackie Robinson Day 2020 also sparked strikes across the conservative realm of organised baseball. Mookie Betts of the baseball team the LA Dodgers articulated the feelings of many black athletes. “For me, I think no matter what, I wasn’t going to play tonight,” Betts said. “I have to use my platform to at least get the ball rolling,” he said. The Dodgers team rallied to Betts’ call for the game to be cancelled. The following night, when the New York Mets and Miami Marlins took the field, they held a 42-second moment of silence (in honour of Jackie Robinson), and then walked off. They left behind a shirt that read “Black Lives Matter” on the home plate (the final base)

The MBL had proved itself nearly impervious to four years of “taking the knee” protests inspired by the San Francisco Giants Quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. Outrage over the killings of Trayvon Martin by a racist vigilante and Eric Garner, by the NYPD for the crime of selling cigarettes, inspired Kaepernick to take a knee during pre-match national anthem renderings. In the hyper-nationalistic world of post-9/11 US sports, this was akin to blasphemy. Kaepernick was publicly vilified by Donald Trump and effectively blacklisted out of the National Football League (NFL).

The legacy of Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson (1919 -1972) was born in Georgia USA. The son of sharecroppers he was an exceptionally gifted athlete playing baseball, American football, basketball, track and tennis. During World War Two Robinson joined the army and was part of a movement to desegregate the officer corp. Robinson was courtmartialed for refusing to sit at the back of a segregated army bus – he would later be acquitted of all charges. After the war Robinson played professional baseball in the “Negro League”.

In 1946, Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers sent his scouts out to find a black player who he could recruit to break the unofficial colour barrier in organised baseball.

Robinson stoically ignored both the cold shoulder from his own teammates and racist abuse from opponents and fans alike. Robinson was hit by an illegal pitch (throwing the baseball at the opponent in order to hurt them) more than any other player in organised baseball in 1947. Runners would often spike him (injure him with their spiked shoes) on purpose as they came into first base.

Later Robinson faced down an outrageous racist barrage from opposing team, the Phillies, and their racist manager, Ben Chapman, who repeatedly called Robinson a “n______” and told him to “go back to the cotton fields”. This time, Robinson’s teammates picked up bats and walked towards the Phillies’ dugout. The Phillies shut up.

The contradictions of militant citizenship

Robinson brought the panache of the segregated Negro Leagues baseball to hidebound white world of the MLB. Robinson led the league in sacrifice hits (the act of deliberately bunting the ball so that a team member can reach a new base), with 28, and in stolen bases, with 29. He helped pioneer the era of fast, aggressive base running. Stealing bases was almost a lost art in the MLB in 1947. It could have devastating impact on the concentration of the opposing pitcher, once he started worrying about what’s happening behind him. Pitchers might throw more bad balls, or worse, balls that could be easily hit, while strikeouts went south. Robinson would take his art to the next level – stealing home to score. The saying goes: “You can’t run a second too early, or a second too late.” Robinson famously stole home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series.

Robinson was voted the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year in his first year with the Dodgers (today the award bears his name). In one national popularity poll, he came out ahead of President Truman and General Eisenhower, second only to Bing Crosby.

Robinson stood up to racism throughout his playing career. Early on, Robinson had made sure the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs tour bus would not refuel unless the gas station agreed to let the team use the washroom.

As late as 1950, Robinson faced death threats before a game in Cincinnati; a teammate suggested that the whole team wore the Number 42 so that a shooter would not know who to aim at. A gesture of solidarity by players that is now celebrated every Jackie Robinson Day.

In July 1949, Robinson was called to testify before the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) concerning statements made that April by black athlete and actor Paul Robeson in Paris. Robeson had said that black people would not want to fight in a war with the Soviet Union. Robinson was reluctant to testify, but he eventually agreed to do so, under pressure from Branch Rickey. He said that Robinson’s remarks had been “very silly”. Robinson tried to use his end appearance to denounce racism and demand progress on civil rights. His anti-racist message got drowned out in the witch-hunt of Robeson.

Robinson later noted that on the eve of his HUAC testimony, he could:

Not help but sense the irony of the fact that I, a Negro once court-martialled for opposing Army Jim Crow, should now be asked to pledge the Negro’s loyalty to the Army.

Robinson’s testimony gave cover to HUAC’s persecution of Robeson, who had his passport revoked and was forced into exile. Robeson never responded to the ballplayer. It was a further irony that American Communist Party had been campaigning for desegregation in baseball since at least 1936, when the Daily Worker started carrying a sports column.

A CPUSA leaflet calling on LA baseball teams to desegregate.

In his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson would later consider his HUAC appearance as one of the greatest missteps of his life: “In those days I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man…I would reject such an invitation if offered now…Paul Robeson who, over a span of that twenty years, sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.”

McCarthyism would have a massively destructive impact on the progress of civil rights legislation: there would be a seven-year gap between Truman’s desegregation of the army and Brown v. The Board Education decision, the Montgomery bus boycotts and the emergence of the civil rights movement. This is the context in which Robinson took up the cudgels to argue for equality in America.

Robinson chose to swim against the stream (even though diagnosed with diabetes in 1957). While still a player, he had begun writing for the New York Daily News to challenge the tardiness of the sport to fully accept racial integration. After baseball, Robinson combined his career as a businessman in a New York coffee chain with ardent campaigning for the civil rights movement.

In October 1959, Robinson entered the Greenville Municipal Airport’s whites-only waiting room. Airport police asked Robinson to leave, but he refused. At a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) speech in Greenville, South Carolina, Robinson urged “complete freedom” and encouraged black citizens to vote and to protest their second-class citizenship. On New Year’s Day 1960, approximately 1,000 people marched to the airport, which was desegregated soon after.

He raised funds for the NAACP, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Martin Luther King. In December 1956, the NAACP recognised him with the Spingarn Medal, its annual award for the highest achievement by an African-American.

He used his New York Post column to rally support for Freedom Riders who were arrested for sitting-in at a diner in Tallahassee. He would demand that the government send Federal Troops to protect black students facing bigoted mobs. When the KKK burnt down two churches in Albany, Georgia, to disrupt a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) black voter registration drive, Robinson personally toured the ruins, spoke at a rally and headed up the successful fund-raising campaign to get them re-built. Martin Luther King summed up Robinson’s contribution to civil eights:

A pilgrim walking the lonesome byways, towards the high road of Freedom. He was a sit inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.

Robinson’s copious correspondence with America’s establishment political leaders over civil rights collected in the book First Class Citizenship, show him attempting to play the honest broker on behalf of his people. He wanted the black vote (and the black wallet) to be used as strategic political leverage to gain greater improvements in jobs, housing and education.

Robinson joining the “hire black workers now!” campaign

In the early 1960s Robinson and Malcolm X had a very public and bad tempered spat. Robinson accused Malcolm and the Nation of Islam of not being the “true solution to the black mans problems” and Malcolm hit back accusing Robinson of being a white pawn in the Civil Rights Movement. The argument echoed the debate between Malcolm and Martin Luther King about non-violent resistance. Ultimately, Malcolm X was right to argue that America’s white political establishment – Republican or Democrat – could not be trusted to deliver on civil rights. Tragically, Malcolm X did not live long enough see that Jackie Robinson would remain a passionate and unrelenting advocate for civil rights for the rest of his life.

Robinson was opposed to a default black vote for the Democrats: “when we use our ballot wisely, we are exercising black power without having to define it”. His persistent theme was that time for “patience” was long gone. He rightly saw that “liberal” Democrats were mired in a toxic sweetheart deal with the traditional Dixiecrat politicians from the South – those who helped to deliver the Southern racist vote for the party at election time. Robinson tested his lobbying strategy to the point of self-destruction.

He would campaign unsuccessfully for Nixon against Kennedy in 1960. By 1963, Robinson writes angrily to President Kennedy over police repression of SCLC protestors in Birmingham, Alabama: “The revolution that is taking place in this country cannot be squelched by police dogs or high power hoses.” He later blamed the Republicans for failing to campaign for the black vote. During the Presidential campaign, the Kennedys cannily used their Dixiecrat connections, with a couple of calls to the judge, to get Martin Luther King released from prison – where he was facing a sentence of six months hard labour. Nixon did not lift a finger. By 1966, Robinson was declaring himself a “Rockefeller Republican”.

The Republican Party would take a lurch to the right in the mid sixties, nominating right-wing hawk, Barry Goldwater for President in 1964, consciously courting the racist vote. Robinson would denounce him as “a bigot” and “advocate of white supremacy.” Nelson Rockefeller’s speech at the Republican Convention would be drowned out by an orchestrated mob of pro-Goldwater delegates. Robinson left the convention saying he now had “a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany”.

By 1967, Robinson broke with Nixon who was now running for the backlash – campaigning for “order before progress”. Robinson supported Rockefeller’s run President, but Nixon won the nomination. In November 1967, Robinson writes to Goldwater in a surely misguided attempt at triangulation: “I hope you are willing to continue and help make the American dream a reality.” Goldwater would write back complaining about “reverse racism”.

In the 1968, Presidential election Robinson would support the Democrats. By 1969, he is writing President Nixon to remind him of his previous civil rights views. But Nixon had long since thrown those views in the trash. Nixon had given southern racists in the Republican Party a veto over the choice of Vice President. Spiro Agnew was their man. We find Nixon, via John Ehrlichman, writing to FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover to run background checks on Robinson. The age of White House paranoia had begun.

Rockefeller would order an armed assault to re-take Attica State Prison from rioters in 1972. Thirty-nine people died in the assault (23 of them were black), including ten of the hostages, nine of which were killed by the State Police and National Guard soldiers. An additional eighty people were wounded in what was called “a turkey shoot” by state prosecutor Malcolm Bell. By then, the American Dream was melting into a nightmare.

Robinson’s Legacy

I believe it is more important to appreciate the legacy of militant citizenship that Jackie Robinson pioneered in US Sports. It comes down through Tommy Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics, through Colin Kaepernick – but also through Mookie Betts. The Black Lives Matter movement is its highest expression so far.

Mookie Betts would hit a clutch home run (the decisive hit in the game) in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2020 World Series, which all but sealed the championship for Los Angeles Dodgers (formerly the Brooklyn “Bums”). Betts became the first person, since Babe Ruth in 1921, to steal two bases in one inning of a World Series game. His shirt is now the joint MLB leader in merchandise sales. Will he help herald the return of black fans to baseball? Perhaps.

One of the distinguishing features of the 2020 sports “strikes” was the degree to which the franchise owners quickly moved to sanction and co-opt the protests. Barack Obama with his characteristic “smarts” promptly popped up to defuse an all-out stoppage in the NBA. The owners had finally realised – however late in the day – that Trump was bad for business.

After Opening Day 2021, the MLB owners moved to protect their brand, by pulling the celebrating All Star Game from Georgia. This was a huge slap down to Georgia’s pro-Trump Republican politicians, whose revenge on black voters for the audacity electing two Democrat Senators, was to bring forward legislation (already labeled Jim Crow 2.0) to make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote. This unprecedented action by the traditionally conservative MLB is only the latest reverberation of the BLM movement and the 2020 sports strikes. Jackie Robinson’s message may have at last got through: “All these guys who were saying that we’ve got it made through athletics, it’s just not so. You as an individual can make it, but I think we’ve got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people—not by what happens to the individual.” Finally, organised baseball has done the right thing.

It is easy to play the Monday morning quarterback, when passing judgement on Robinson’s political convolutions. There is no evidence that Robinson’s passion for the civil rights cause diminished, as he grew older. I think there is evidence that Robinson was angrier than ever about America’s failure to move towards greater equality. He writes in his 1972 autobiography:

Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.

Jackie Robinson with Martin Luther King

Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King at a SCLC convention in Birmingham, Alabama 1962 (pic credit – Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Monica Karales and the Estate of James Karales)

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