Jackie Robinson’s Long Fight Against Discrimination

Red Sox observe Jackie Robinson Day (Scoop Sports)

Today marks the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first regular season appearance in a Brooklyn Dodgers’ uniform. In commemoration of that event, all Major League players will wear Robinson’s retired number 42 on their jerseys.

Setting aside the Walker brothers (Moses and Wedly) who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association (over 60 years before Robinson) — then also Major League — on April 15th, 1947 Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball.

When he wrote his autobiography shortly before his death, however, Robinson did not chose his first Major League game as the lead-in to a provocative statement that still echoes today, but rather a different game during his first season that perhaps held more importance to him.

While Robinson’s (re)integration of Major League Baseball remains relevant today, other aspects of his life have been in the news recently as well. Ken Burns co-produced a four-hour documentary about Robinson’s life that aired on PBS last year. Scholars employed Robinson’s long-time affiliation with the Republican Party as a way to explore the role of African Americans in the GOP, and at the end of last August, a line from the preface to Robinson’s autobiography made the rounds after Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem.

As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know I am a black man in a white world. — Jackie Robinson

In the Baseball and American History class I teach, I assign the preface to Robinson’s autobiography, which takes on added significance in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest. Robinson states in that preface, “As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know I am a black man in a white world.”

I was probably 12 or 13 when I read Robinson’s autobiography for the first time and that line did not mean nearly as much to me then as it does today. As a kid I didn’t think about the consequences of Robinson’s statement, consequences that my students were curious about in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest and subsequent backlash.

When I assigned that excerpt, I assumed that Robinson refused to stand for the anthem after his playing career ended, but one student asked if instead, what Robinson meant was that he could not stand AND sing the anthem simultaneously. In other words, did Robinson stand for the anthem, just not sing the words? Was silence his protest? In order to answer those questions, it helps to know a little bit about Robinson’s politics and activism.

Robinson was far more than just a baseball player, he was a civil rights activist during and after his playing career and he was involved with politics in a variety of ways. Importantly, Robinson’s politics changed over time.

In the late 1940s, he testified in front of Congress, voicing his disagreement with Paul Robeson’s claim that African Americans would not fight a war against the Soviet Union on behalf of the American government — testimony he wrote in his autobiography he would not have given later in his life.

In 1960, he supported Richard Nixon’s campaign for president. In 1964, he backed Nelson Rockefeller’s quest for the Republican nomination for president (Robinson also worked for Rockefeller when Rockefeller was governor of New York). But Robinson refused to support Barry Goldwater when he won the nomination.

Courtesy: Public Resource via Flickr

In 1968, Robinson declined to endorse Nixon again, this time campaigning for the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey. Knowing this, and knowing that had Robinson elected not to stand for the National Anthem during his playing career it would have been mentioned in his autobiography or his many biographies, to answer my student’s question I decided to examine the time around when he made that provocative statement, in 1972.

Before the second game of the 1972 World Series, Robinson was invited to throw out the first pitch and to receive an award in recognition of the 25th anniversary of his integration of Major League Baseball. Robinson, hobbled by diabetes and heart disease, went to the game and was on the field for the National Anthem.

…I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball. — Jackie Robinson

Video from that World Series shows Robinson, standing, but not appearing to sing while the National Anthem was played. Moreover, as a former Lieutenant in the United States Army, Robinson did not salute the flag during the anthem. It appears then, that Robinson would stand for the anthem, but would not sing the words or salute the flag. His silence was a protest, but not his only one that day.

After the anthem, Robinson received his award and gave a brief speech which ended with the lines, “I’m extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”

Robinson died of a heart attack at his home in Connecticut nine days later. The first African American to manage a Major League team, Frank Robinson (no relation), did not take the helm of the Cleveland Indians until 1975, and minorities remain vastly underrepresented in Major League managerial ranks today.

If there’s a common theme to Robinson’s statement, his politics, and his actions, it is that Robinson supported what he thought in the moment was the best path toward equality and did not abide by discrimination in any form.

The game Robinson used as his jumping off point for stating that he could not stand and sing the anthem, that he could not salute the flag, was not his debut seventy years ago April 15th, but rather the first game of the 1947 World Series. Unsurprisingly, Robinson felt like an outsider on April 15th, 1947, but that status persisted even as he became a star of the National League champion Dodgers that fall.

From reading his autobiography, it seems that appearing in the World Series meant to Robinson that he had made it, he hadn’t just integrated Major League Baseball, but proven that he would stick around.

April 15th, 1947, might have been the beginning, but the World Series that fall meant that Robinson would be more than a footnote, meant he had the staying power to continue the fight against discrimination long after the game on the field was over, right until his last public appearance at the 1972 World Series.

(Jackie Robinson baseball cards courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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