August 23, 2013

Jackie Robinson: The Artful Dodger As Classical Liberal

By: Joseph Hammond

Perhaps it really was just a harmless gesture of frustration, but a San Francisco Giants fan provoked a flurry of disdain by tossing a banana at Orioles star Adam Jones earlier this month. A week prior to this incident a defacement of a Jackie Robinson statue — in Brooklyn of all places — generated a flurry of condemnation as well. At minimum, the response to these incidents shows just how far baseball is removed from the intolerance that plagued the sport well into the 1940s, when Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947.


Jackie Robinson’s life hit the big screen this year in the major motion picture, 42, but a more nuanced portrait of the hero can be found in Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball, a collection of opinion columns Robinson wrote after his playing days ended, edited by Michael Long.

In his writings, Robinson revealed himself as a man who was passionate about civil rights. After desegregating baseball he continued to advocate for integration of other sports; his greatest victory came in March 1960, when Charlie Sifford was admitted as the first African American in the Professional Golfers Association (PGS). Yet, Robinson also maintained staunchly pro-business views. He also understood that economics was biggest reason Dodger owner Walter O’Malley had decided to desegregate baseball. O’Malley knew African-American players could help win games and, in doing so, attract fans of both races. On foreign policy, Jackie Robinson was both stridently anti-Communist and an early critic of South Africa’s government, which combined socialist economic policies with racial segregation. Robinson’s views on these and other issues seem in retrospect seem quite libertarian.

NFL’s Robenson vs. MLB’s Robinson

Jackie Robinson role in politics outside of baseball began in 1949. Robinson appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in which both Walter O’Malley agreed to allow Robinson the right to speak on political issues.

His testimony came as a response to former NFL star and Hollywood actor Paul Robeson. An avowed Marxist (he lived in the Soviet Union briefly) Robeson muddied the waters of America’s racial politics by implying African-Americans would be unwilling to fight for the United States in a conflict with the Soviet Union. Robeson felt the Soviet Union was a racially-integrated workers’ paradise. While it is true the USSR paid lip service to integration the Soviets discriminated against many ethnic minorities. In fact, Stalin sent millions of Soviet ethnic minorities from Estonians to Central Asian Muslims to his gulags. Some of this would have been known in Robeson’s time as well. Russian broadcasts of the show trials of the 1930s, for instance, emphasized the defendants’ Jewish names. Robeson himself had met with Itzik Feffer, a Soviet Jew during his time in Russia, who revealed to him the extent of Soviet persecutions.

Jackie Robinson, who served in the Army during the World War II I(as an officer, thanks to the advocacy of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis), was subpoenaed by Congress to respond to Robeson’s criticisms.In recent years, Robinson has been cast as reluctant to speak out against Robeson, perhaps beacuse Robeson had long advocated for allowing African-Americans into baseball.

Yet, in appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Robinson pulled no punches. He gave a sharp criticism of both communism and the state of racial affairs in the United States. After leaving baseball, Robinson would proudly recall his appearance on the HUAC, as evidenced in Beyond Home Plate. In another column Robinson wrote, “one of the things we are fighting for, I deeply hope, is the right for men to have freedom of opinion, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech” (Long, 112).

Indeed as a writer Robinson had no qualms with taking on historical figures far more imposing than Paul Robeson. When in 1960 former President Truman chastised civil disobedience tactics by saying, “the Negro should behave himself and show he’s a good citizen,” Robinson challenged Truman by recalling that black soldiers had fought in Truman’s Korean War. That same year, Robinson became a vocal advocate of Richard Nixon. Robinson thought he had found in Nixon a politician was both sympathetic to civil rights causes and virulently anti-Communist.

Nixon, who had served on the HUAC when Robinson appeared, delighted the future Hall of Fame sports star on one occasion by recalling in detail a key play in a 1939 UCLA-Oregon Rosebowl game in which Jackie Robinson, then best known as a football star played a key role. The incident was likely not staged. Nixon remained a life-long NFL fan, such that noted “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson was once invited by Patrick Buchannan to share a ride to the airport with Nixon in 1972 specifically to talk football. Though Robinson soured on his fellow Californian during the 1970 election, because of Nixon’s backtracking on racial issues, Robinson did attend a fundraising event for Nixon in 1972.

NVA Go Home

Jackie Robinson had no qualms about speaking against prominent African-Americans as well, including Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali. Robinson disagreed with both men on the Vietnam War, which he regarded as part of the broader struggle against a communist ideology bent on world domination. King and other critics often portrayed the war in Vietnam as an act of American imperialism. Yet, Robinson faulted Martin Luther King in a column for focusing solely on U.S role in the war, suggesting he was morally complacent in North Vietnamese Army’s invasion of the South. Robinson’s comments recall an iconic image of an African-American soldier serving in Vietnam who had written “NVA Go Home” written on his helmet.

Robinson, whose own son served in Vietnam War, saw the criticism of the war in Vietnam by African-Americans as a continuation of the arguments used by Paul Robeson. Robinson often linked the international struggle against communism to the domestic struggle on Civil Rights for African-Americans.

“We are concerned about the Castros and the Kruschevs, the outsiders. We are not aware of the creeping corruption which threatens us from within,” Robinson wrote after segregationist Governor George Wallace got a surprising 23 percent of the vote in the 1964 Democratic Presidential primary election.

It Usually Starts with Fredrick Douglass

Jackie Robinson needs to be remembered for more than being the silent hero of films like “42.” He was a vibrant part of the American cultural and political landscape, not just in 1947 but through the 1950s and 1960s as well. It might be too much a stretch to call Jackie Robinson an outright libertarian. Robinson saw himself as an independent believing that African-Americans interests if captured solely by one party would be to their detriment. Yet, it would be far less of a stretch to include Jackie Robinson in the Classical Liberal strain of African-American political thought that already includes Zora Neale Hurston and Fredrick Douglass.

Joseph Hammond is a writer based in Cairo, Egypt. Jackie Robinson stamp image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.