Remembering how Jackie helped 'sear America's conscience'

April 15th, 2024

Six days earlier, at Ebbets Field, Jackie Robinson had worn the home whites of his Brooklyn Dodgers and doubled and scored three runs in his first AL/NL All-Star Game. It was July 1949, the middle of Robinson’s third season with the Dodgers. And while the great experiment that was Jackie’s integration of MLB still had a long way to go (only three of the 16 teams had a Black player at that time), Robinson himself was successful enough to lead his league in batting average and popular enough to yield more votes to appear in the Midsummer Classic than any other National League player.

The credibility that came with that popularity was the reason Robinson was, on this particular day, attired not in his baseball uniform but in a tan suit and taking position not at second base but at a wood table in a Congressional hearing room.

Robinson had been summoned by the ultimately infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as part of the anti-Communist investigations often associated with McCarthyism. With the United States in the throes of the Cold War, Robinson was seen as a sort of model minority representative that the committee could call upon to denounce the Black artist, actor, athlete and activist Paul Robeson, who had been (wrongly) quoted as having said, “It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations.”

Unhappy with the idea of being used as a tool of white politicians to pit members of the Black community against each other, Robinson had considered declining the committee’s invitation. Ultimately, though, he felt what he would later call a “sense of responsibility” to counter the dangerous notion that Black citizens were eager to demonstrate disloyalty to the United States.

Robinson speaks in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949.

If, however, the HUAC anticipated some sort of subservience from Robinson, it was thrown a curveball.

Because while Robinson did dismiss Robeson’s purported remarks as “silly” (it could also be interpreted that Robinson was dismissing the uproar over the remarks as “silly”), he took that opportunity to make an important point.

“White people must realize,” Robinson said, “that the more a Negro hates communism because it opposes democracy, the more he is going to hate any other influence that kills off democracy in this country -- and that goes for racial discrimination in the Army, and segregation on trains and buses, and job discrimination because of religious beliefs or color or place of birth.”

Robinson concluded this segment of his remarks with a powerful message.

“Negroes were stirred up long before there was a Communist party,” he said, “and they’ll stay stirred up long after the party has disappeared, unless Jim Crow has disappeared, as well.”

The room was packed with reporters and onlookers. And yet, just as Jackie had feared, the heart of his message was drowned out by the headlines that seized upon the Robinson vs. Robeson aspect of the hearing. Essentially, Robinson was cast not as the thoughtful dissenter that he was but, rather, as a symbol of the broader American political sentiment.

That’s how it often was in Robinson’s life -- and how it often is in his afterlife. We remember him on Jackie Robinson Day and every other day as the man who was able to calmly absorb the abuse of ugly taunts and jeers to forever change the national pastime and American society by breaking baseball’s color barrier.

But in all that remembering, we do an awful lot of forgetting.

Because to paint Robinson as a compliant, turn-the-other-cheek type is to miss his true impact on the civil rights movement through ardent activism. With a strong sense of justice and the willingness to speak and to write passionately about issues he held dear, Robinson was, in fact, a radical.

That’s an essential side of Jackie that too often gets overlooked in the sterilized tellings of his tale.

“Jackie Robinson,” Martin Luther King Jr. himself once wrote, “incessantly raises questions to sear America’s conscience.”

Robinson staged a bus protest more than a decade before Rosa Parks. And as King observed, he “was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the freedom rides.” In the North and the South, he championed integrated education, voting rights and fair housing, ruffling many feathers along the way.

Often, Robinson is depicted as having had, as Branch Rickey put it, “the courage not to fight back.”

But the truth is that Robinson was a fighter, through and through.

“We have turned Jackie Robinson into shorthand for our own wishes and desires,” filmmaker Ken Burns told Sports Illustrated when promoting his documentary Jackie Robinson in 2016, “when the real person is so interesting and so contemporary.”

There was nothing syrupy sweet about growing up Black in wealthy, conservative Pasadena, Calif., in the 1920s. In his '72 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson said a desire for “payback, retaliation” was instilled in him at the age of eight, when a neighborhood girl referred to him by a vile epithet.

That spirit stuck with Robinson into adulthood. A less genuine version of his story might fail to mention him getting court-martialed while serving in the Army in 1944. Robinson had gotten into a verbal confrontation with a white officer after he refused to heed a bus driver’s order that he move to the back of the bus.

“I refused to allow this civilian to dictate to me where to sit,” Robinson reflected in his 1964 book, Baseball Has Done It. “Everything would have been all right if I had been a ‘yessah boss’ type.”

Robinson was not that. He later acknowledged that, in the midst of the uproar, he had threatened a white soldier who referred to him by the N-word that, if he ever called him that word again, “I would break him in two.”

Fortunately, Robinson won that court case -- a victory that likely altered the course of history. Robinson, who later said he sensed the Army was anxious to be rid of an “uppity” Black man, was never sent into combat and instead put on light duty as a recreation officer, then honorably discharged soon thereafter. That set him free to pursue his professional baseball career, which began the following year with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.

It was on a road trip with the Monarchs that Robinson attempted to use the restroom at a gas station in Muskogee, Okla., only to be told by the station owner that it was reserved for white people.

“OK then,” Robinson is reported to have said, “take the hose out of the tank.”

As the story goes, the station owner calculated the loss of a 100-gallon sale and relented. The Monarchs were allowed to use the restroom.

It is true that Robinson kept his promise to Rickey that, during his sea-changing 1947 season with the Dodgers, he would not retaliate against the endless, ruthless abuse he faced from bigoted fans and ballplayers.

But it is also true that, not long after that rookie year, Robinson, who had experienced stomach pains from bottling in his anger, increasingly spoke out against racial injustice via interviews, speeches and, eventually, the regular newspaper columns he penned for the New York Post and the New York Amsterdam News.

That 1949 HUAC hearing can be looked upon as an important turning point in Robinson using his newfound national fame to call attention to social issues and the unfulfilled promises of the Constitution, even though his message was mangled by some in the media. Silent no more in his baseball career, he would be labeled a “rabble-rouser,” a “troublemaker” and a “loudmouth” in various reports. A Sporting News headline proclaimed, “Robinson Should Be a Player, Not a Crusader.”

But long after he stopped being a player, he remained a crusader.

Robinson participated in marches. He wrote letters imploring Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon to pass civil rights legislation. He served as the first vice president of Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. And in his syndicated newspaper column, “Jackie Robinson Says,” he strayed from sports to discuss social justice issues.

“If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards and citations,” Robinson once wrote, “and a child of mine came into that room and asked what I had done in defense of Black people and decent whites fighting for freedom, and I had to tell that child that I had kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure at the whole business of living.”

Robinson ventured far past the baseball diamond and into the fight to shape the American future for his children. And he lived his words.

In 1959, he flew to Greenville, S.C., for a rally of a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, for whom he served as a board member, and refused to move to a “colored only” section of the airport, telling the airport manager he was “comfortable where he was.” A few months later, inspired by that act of defiance on Robinson’s part, some 1,000 people staged a New Year’s Day march to the municipal airport.

Robinson faced criticism within the Black community, from Malcolm X and others, for not being militant enough and for supporting Nixon over John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race. But one cannot look at the totality of Robinson’s contributions to the conversation and to the fight for civil rights and not come away with the conclusion that his only true enemy was a racial divide that, in so many ways, still exists.

Robinson believed no Black man had it made, regardless of his fame or riches, so long as Constitutional rights were not extended to all. And even in his final public appearance before his untimely death in 1972, he spoke up about an issue he believed in.

As had been the case with the 1949 HUAC hearing, Robinson had considered declining the invitation to throw out a ceremonial first pitch prior to Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. But he agreed on the condition that he not be censored.

“I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon,” he told the crowd in Cincinnati and the millions watching on television, “but must admit I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud if I look at that third-base coaching line one day and see a Black face managing in baseball.”

Robinson died nine days later at the age of 53, a victim of heart disease and diabetes. His life has been celebrated often in the more than half-century since.

But to remember Jackie Robinson only as a barrier-breaker on the ballfield -- and to admire him for the courage it took to absorb injustice, as opposed to the courage it took to speak and act out against it -- is to sell his legacy short.