Jackie Robinson Republican Roots: Baseball Icon Confronts White Supremacy

In this Oct. 4, 1960, photograph, baseball legend Jackie Robinson stands with then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon (right) during a campaign stop in New Jersey. | Source: Bettmann/Getty

Oon April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, changing baseball and society forever.

Robinson was black, and the integration of all-white major league baseball was perhaps the single most important civil rights story in the years immediately following World War II.

Integration, wrote Jules Tygiel in his groundbreaking book “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” “captured the imagination of millions of Americans who had previously ignored the nation’s racial dilemma.”

As Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly put it, Robinson “was a sit-in before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

Major League Baseball celebrates the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s historic career on April 15, 2022 at stadiums and baseball diamonds across the country.

But in my opinion, those celebrations will fail if they don’t address how Robinson faced white supremacy with class and dignity for a period before joining the Dodgers, when his own minor league manager once asked, “Think you really what a nigra is a human being?

I have written or edited four books on Jackie Robinson. When I give a lecture or lecture on him, I often mention that he was a Republican.

Given the Republican Party’s modern opposition to civil and voting rights protections — and the teaching of racism in American history — this invariably provokes an audible gasp from the public.

Republican roots

Robinson, who lived from 1919 to 1972, was a Republican when millions of other black people were Republicans.

At that time, the GOP still clung to its mantra that it was “the party of Abraham Lincoln,” the president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” in the rebellious Southern States which had seceded from the Union “are and shall henceforth be free”.

Jackie Robinson speaking to the National Association of Newspaper Publishers.

(original caption) New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller sits on a rock at left as Jackie Robinson, a Rockefeller adviser and former baseball star Brooklyn Dodger, speaks to members of the National Newspapers Publishers Association, a black group, during of an outdoor reception at Robinson’s home. Robinson endorsed Rockefeller’s candidacy for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. Source: Bettmann/Getty

Robinson’s parents gave him the middle name of Roosevelt in honor of Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, “who expressed contempt for racism”, wrote Arnold Rampersad in his biography of Robinson, “before the power of the white supremacy would cause Roosevelt to fall back into conservatism”.

Branch Rickey, the white Dodgers executive who signed Robinson to a contract and became his mentor, was a staunch Republican who believed in racial equality. Robinson supported and then worked for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s civil rights advocate.

“If we had one or two governors in the Deep South like Nelson Rockefeller,” King said, “many of our problems could easily be solved.”

Robinson endorsed Richard Nixon, the Republican presidential candidate, in 1960. Nixon, who like Robinson was from Southern California, convinced Robinson, a former UCLA athlete, that he would support civil rights .

Robinson found Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, Nixon’s opponent, “disingenuous” in his lukewarm support for civil rights.

Kennedy won the presidential election that year.

white man’s party

In 1964, US Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona challenged Rockefeller and other more liberal Republicans for control of what the right called “the white man’s party.” He won the party’s presidential nomination.

Although Goldwater lost the presidential election in a landslide to Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson, he won the hearts and minds of pro-segregation Democrats, mostly Southern politicians and their supporters who had given up the Democratic Party when it passed legislation in the late 1950s and 1960s to advance black civil and voting rights.

Copy of the "poison pen" Letter to Warren Giles

(Original caption May 22, 1951) This is a copy of the “Poison Pen” letter received by Warren Giles, president of the Cincinnati Reds, threatening to kill Jackie Robinson if he played for the Dodgers in the Twin Bill against the Reds in May . Dec. 20, 1951. Jackie’s response to the threats was a big home run in Game 1 that opened the game and led to a double win for Brooklyn, 10-3, 14-4. | Source: Bettmann/Getty

Those who switched parties included U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who ran for president in 1948 as a segregationist and then filibustered for more than 24 hours to prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Goldwater, Nixon and others in the GOP used what they called the “Southern Strategy” to capitalize on Southern white grievances and fears over the Democrats’ groundbreaking proposal that blacks should have equal rights.

By 1968, Robinson was done with the GOP. He refused to support Nixon when he ran for president again in 1968. He also became more active in the civil rights movement and appeared frequently with King.

Robinson also became a prolific writer, including a column for the Amsterdam News, a black weekly, where he further developed his fierce opposition to the Republican Party.

“I suspect that unless the party shows a desire to win our votes,” he wrote in a 1968 letter to Clarence Lee Towns Jr., the leading black member of the Republican National Committee, “it may rest assured that I and my friends cannot and will not support a conservative.

Instead, Robinson backed Nixon’s Democratic rival, Hubert Humphrey. “I have the right to remember that I was black and American before being a Republican,” Robinson wrote in the Amsterdam News. “As such, I will never vote for Mr. Nixon.”

When Nixon won the election, Robinson demonstrated the determination he showed throughout his life.

In one of his final letters to the White House from Nixon, Robinson pleaded with Special Assistant Roland L. Elliott to listen to black America before racial tensions spiral out of control.

“Black America has asked for so little,” Robinson wrote, “but if you can’t see the anger that comes from rejection, you’re walking down a dangerous path. We older blacks were unfortunately prepared to wait. Today’s black youth are ready to explode.

On November 24, 1972, Robinson died of a heart attack at the age of 53. Twenty-five years later, Major League Baseball honored him by retiring his number, 42, meaning the number can no longer be worn by any player in the league.

No other baseball player has received such an honor.

Chris Lamb, Professor of Journalism, IUPUI

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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