(First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson, edited by Michael G. Long, Times Books, 357 pp.)
Note: This column uses the word “Negro,” which is now politically incorrect. Before 1968, all right-thinking people, including Jackie Robinson, used it. It became “black” and “African American” between 1965 and 1968.
Public figures today don’t send personal letters about public issues to each other. You only see inside the interplay of personalities and issues when a prosecutor subpoenas someone’s hard drive. But Jackie Robinson wrote personal and political letters to everybody after he stopped playing baseball in 1957, until his death in 1972. Everybody answered him because he was Jackie Robinson.
From 1957 to 1960, he developed close personal relationships with Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. Hubert Humphrey. He thought they were genuinely committed to civil rights, and the Kennedys were insincere. After Humphrey lost the Democratic nomination to John Kennedy, Robinson campaigned full time for Nixon as an unpaid volunteer.
He changed his mind about the Kennedys and Nixon after the 1960 election, when John and his brother Robert finally realized that civil rights was a moral issue that also damaged our image with emerging nations, in our competition with the Soviet Union for hearts and minds. Jackie, a staunch patriot and anti-Communist, said that all the time.
He thought Nixon lost the 1960 election because he only got 6 percent of the black vote, and that black votes could win elections for Republicans, and create a real two-party system. He thought blacks would be better off if they did not put all their eggs into one Democratic basket, but they would not until the Republicans took them seriously. He was the only prominent black person in that era who voted Republican.
He spent years after 1960 lobbying unsuccessfully to get Republicans to take the Negro vote seriously. He changed his mind about Nixon in the early ‘60s because he did not object when the Republicans chose to concede the “Negro vote,” and become a whites-only political party, pursuing traditionally Democratic white Southerners and Northern blue-collar workers and ethnic groups. Nixon became president in 1968 using this “Southern Strategy,” as it came to be known.
Nixon campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964, and Jackie was convinced Goldwater was no better than the Southern bigots who dominated Congress. When Goldwater asked him for a meeting in 1964, Robinson said, “What could we possibly talk about?” When they actually did meet in 1967, Robinson discovered that he liked Sen. Goldwater personally, though they still disagreed on practically everything.
His favorite politician was New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, whom he campaigned for. He even took a job briefly in Rockefeller’s government. But in 1972, he broke with Rockefeller when he felt his friend had abandoned his principles to court Republican conservatives. Rockefeller was Jackie’s last hope for a Republican who could attract black voters, but Rockefeller told Jackie he had to be “realistic.”
Malcolm X called Jackie an Uncle Tom and a “white man’s nigger.” Jackie called Malcolm a “misleader” for advocating separatism instead of integration, and urging blacks to arm themselves. He also called Malcolm a hypocrite and a coward for making his speeches in Harlem, where it’s safe, while the real fighters, black and white, were losing their lives in the South, facing police dogs and fire hoses, being beaten and arrested, and seeing their churches and homes bombed. Jackie did not mince words.
He raised money for all mainstream black organizations, especially the NAACP and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The two groups could have become rivals, because they were asking the same people for money. Jackie resisted those divide-and-conquer efforts and was one of the strongest voices for unity. Jackie went anywhere practically any time when asked to speak at a rally, or to a state, county or precinct organization. He raised money for specific projects at “Afternoons of Jazz” at his home in Connecticut.
He believed free enterprise and capitalism were part of the black struggle for equality. His first job after baseball was as personnel director for Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee, where he advocated for more blacks in substantive positions in corporate America. He founded the Freedom National Bank of Harlem, which did not have any national banks at the time. He founded an integrated life insurance company. He started a corporation to build affordable, integrated housing. He even tried, with partners, to buy an enormous piece of land and start a collective for black farmers who were moving to cities because they could not earn a living.
The picture that emerges is a lifelong warrior in the cause of integration and full equality for everyone. His belief in non-violent direct action never changed, but his strong opinions about people changed often, based on their actions on the things he cared about. He complimented and criticized people, sometimes in the same letter. He was constantly reminding people that they should be doing more. He disagreed with everyone at one time or another, except Dr. Martin Luther King.
Two things he always objected to: White people who said Negroes had to be patient (“What people have been more patient?”) and people who told long stories about how far we have come (“What matters is how far we still have to go.”) He did not care if people “accepted” him, but demanded that they respect him and that he remain true to himself and speak his mind.
Right up to his last public appearance two weeks before he died at 54 from diabetes and the heartbreak of losing a son, the Lords of Baseball honored him for his contributions to baseball and America. He refused to go because there were no black managers and practically no African Americans in the front offices of baseball teams. He only agreed to come when Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn promised to change that. Kuhn kept his promise the next year when Frank Robinson (no relation) became manager of the Cleveland Indians, but Jackie did not live to see it.