Jackie Robinson made history on April 15, 1947 when he became the first African-American to play in the all-white major leagues. Then 28, the Georgia-born, Los Angeles-raised World War II veteran had already made a name for himself playing on Negro League teams and as an infielder for the Montreal Royals. Yet when he stepped up to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, Robinson became more than an athlete. If baseball was the national pastime, Jackie Robinson—who excelled despite vitriolic on-field racism—was a symbol of all that was not right in this country.
Almost 66 years to the day that Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut, the new biopic, “42,” offers an opportunity to examine the racial politics of a man whose legacy is often limited to one heroic act.
Brian Helgeland, the film’s director and screenwriter, worked closely with Robinson’s widow, Rachel, to depict what he’s called “10,000 small acts of bravery that turned into one big act of bravery.” The decidedly mainstream film starring newcomer Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey has earned the endorsement of the Obamas, who told a crowd gathered inside the State Dining Room that “everybody in this country needs to see this movie.”
There are already plenty of images of Robinson in popular culture, from children’s books to postage stamps: He’s the focused infielder crouched in a defensive position, the tall black man standing stoically before the press. But you don’t necessarily think of the post-baseball Robinson who told a New York Times reporter in 1969 that he “wouldn’t fly the flag on the Fourth of July or any other day. …When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn’t my friend.”
“Jackie Robinson is positioned in the mainstream as this symbol of an integrationist willing to turn the other cheek,” says David Leonard, the author of “After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness” and a race and gender studies professor at Washington State University. “But this story of racial redemption and African-Americans having to facilitate it is really a tired Hollywood trope. The caricature of Jackie Robinson is that he improved himself and that puts the onus of change on people of color rather than on white America and the institutions that have enacted racism and discrimination throughout history.”
The Reluctant Activist
Robinson, who was also a football, basketball and track star in college, was an athlete first and foremost. Only because he was willing to defy Jim Crow to play baseball did he become, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described him “a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
Still, when it came to this country’s politics, Robinson played a dual role. He was the man who kept his cool and demonstrated courage in the face of blatant racism, but he refused to buckle to certain kinds of pressure. “He was no radical,” says Leonard. “But he was concerned about the impact of racism on his life and others.”
For example, in 1949, just as America was beginning its Cold War with the Soviet Union, Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) hand-picked Robinson to discredit the activist, singer and athlete Paul Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robeson, an avowed communist, had already testified before the committee that “blacks would never pick up arms against the Soviet Union.” Although Robinson had been selected to play the patriot, he delivered candid and at times extraordinary testimony:
Every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent slurs and discrimination because of his race, and he’s going to use every bit of intelligence he has to stop it. This has got absolutely nothing to do with what Communists may or may not do…. Blacks were stirred up long before there was a CP and will be stirred up after unless Jim Crow has disappeared. ..I haven’t any comment to make except that the statement [about Blacks refusing to fight the USSR]—if Mr. Robeson actually made it—sounds very silly to me… Negroes have too much invested in America to throw it away for a siren song sung in bass.
Pragmatism and Action
While Robinson was at best ambivalent about America’s politics and history, he remained invested in its fundamental promise. In a 1963 letter to Malcolm X, Robinson wrote, “America is not perfect by a long shot, but I happen to like it here and will do all I can to help make it the kind of place where my chlildren and theirs can live in dignity.”
To that end, Robinson worked hard. He served on the boards of the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality, led rallies at the invitation of civil rights leaders, and accepted the first vice presidency of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s PUSH Coalition. In 1973, shortly after Robinson’s death, his widow, Rachel, founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which to this day offers four-year scholarships and professional development training to black students.
Robinson’s fight for racial justice was always measured by a degree of pessimism about the realities faced by black people in America. In a 1972 autobiography published shortly before his death at the age of 53, he wrote, “I cannot stand and sing the [national] anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white man’s world.”