ABOVE PHOTO: Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player Jackie Robinson poses in 1952.
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
For five hours on August 8, 1944, the young second lieutenant stood nervously before an all-white nine judge military jury panel at Camp (now Fort) Hood, Texas. He faced multiple charges in his court martial proceedings. His only real offense was that he had defied a segregation mandate. While he rode on a bus back to his base camp, he refused to move to the back of the bus as all blacks were then required to do. Though the army had reduced the charges against him to two counts including insubordination, a conviction would have meant his bounce from the military and possible imprisonment. Fate, and his fame as a star athlete and vigorous protest from the black press and the NAACP, was with him. After lengthy testimony, the second lieutenant was acquitted. But he was not completely out of the legal woods, because of his court martial he was barred from seeing action with his tank unit overseas.
Jackie Robinson never forgot that bitter experience. He talked often about it in years to come. He took special pride in taking a stand against injustice even though it could have cost him his freedom.
This is the Robinson that is seldom mentioned in the countless tributes, testimonials, and celebrations of his smashing baseball’s color barrier. The Warner Bros biopic 42 on Robinson celebrates that towering achievement.
But 66 years ago, on April 15, 1947, when Robinson nervously stood at second base in his first game in the majors he described his feelings as “uneasy” and far less hopeful that his feat would change American attitudes toward blacks. Twenty-five years after that historic day in 1947 Robinson’s unease became bitter doubt. In his immortal and provocative autobiography, I Never Had It Made, he pulled no punches in saying so: “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world. I never had it made.” This is the other story Robinson told in his autobiography, and letters and columns in the New York Post and the Amsterdam News, and most importantly his tireless civil rights activism.
This started two years after he broke the color barrier. In 1949 black singer/activist Paul Robeson made an ill-timed and much distorted statement that blacks were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Robinson was pressured to testify before the witch-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee to refute Robeson. Robinson did not want to be used as a black pawn to attack Robeson.
In his testimony he opposed communism, criticized the committee for its “partisan politics” and fiercely attacked racial discrimination: “We’re not going to stop fighting race discrimination in this country until we’ve got it licked.” Years later he did not regret his testimony but he told why he “would reject such an invitation” if it had been offered at a later date: “In those days I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today.”
Many blacks blasted Robinson as an “Uncle Tom” and “sellout” for supporting the Republican presidential bid of Richard Nixon over Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960. But the Nixon of 1960 wasn’t the Nixon of 1968 who inflamed law-and order sentiment, and pandered to racist, white Southerners. As Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon vigorously fought for the Civil Rights Bills of 1957 and 1960 and for stronger action against racially motivated violence. The Kennedy of 1960 wasn’t the Kennedy of 1963 who took forceful civil rights action. As a senator, he voted to water down a section of the civil rights bill of 1957 and actively courted racist southern Democrats. Robinson promised that if his candidate betrayed him on civil rights “I’ll be right back to give him hell.” He did. He denounced the political mean-spiritedness of Nixon. “Every chance I got I said plainly what I thought of the right-wing Republicans and the harm they were doing.”
During the next decade, Robinson gave speeches, helped raise funds, and made generous contributions to the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But in 1967, he resigned from the NAACP’s board of directors accusing it of being “insensitive to the trends of our times, unresponsive to the needs and aims of the black masses — especially the young — and more and more they seem to reflect a refined, sophisticated, “Yassuh, Mr. Charlie, point of view.” His criticism foreshadowed the identical charges made by dissidents that would nearly wreck the NAACP almost two decades later.
Like many then, Robinson at first regarded Malcolm X as an anti-Semitic, race-baiting demagogue and criticized his approach to racial problems. But in time he came to respect and admire Malcolm X: “Many of the statements he made about the problems faced by our people and the immorality of the white power structure were the naked truth.”
He staked his career and reputation on making black economic empowerment a reality. He believed, “There were two keys to the advancement of blacks in America — the ballot and the buck. If we organized our political and economic strength, we would have a much easier fight on our hands.”
In 1972, Robinson refused to attend an old-timers game and accused baseball owners of running “a big selfish business” for refusing to hire blacks as managers, coaches and front-office executives. More blacks are top coaches and hold front office position in MLB today, but Robinson still might not be satisfied with that, and demand even more be done to attain full equity in the sport.
Robinson got the break of the century when he was chosen to smash the color barrier. He was courted by politicians, showered with personal honors and attained a measure of financial success.
But at the end of his life he realized that many blacks had continued to lose ground: “I can’t believe that I have it made while so many of my black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity, live in slums or barely exist on welfare.”
To the end of his life, Robinson insisted that he never had it made. He’d likely say the same today. That’s the Robinson that baseball, and much of America, has forgotten. 42 tells only part of his story.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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