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Jackie Robinson: Baseball Legend & Civil Rights Advocate

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Shane Norris

History 102

Professor Gold


Jackie Robinson: Baseball Legend & Civil Rights Advocate

        No matter where you go in the United States, people know the name Jackie Robinson. Many people simply think of Robinson as a baseball legend. But taking a closer look at his life, it is easy to see that he was so much more than that. He made strides for African Americans everywhere, both on the baseball diamond and off. Based on his actions during and after his baseball career, I believe that Jackie Robinson was an extremely effective advocate for African American civil rights. He played a key role in the integration of baseball and was one of the larger voices of the African American community in the fight for civil rights.

        Although slavery was abolished following the civil war, African Americans still faced blatant racism, discrimination, and segregation during the early to mid-twentieth century. According to the textbook, racial segregation was a big issue in the decades following the civil war. Although the federal Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited segregation, it was still practices, especially in the south.  The infamous Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case of 1896 ruled that segregation is legal with the policy of “separate but equal”. Laws requiring racial segregation became known as “Jim Crow” Laws. Basically everything from water fountains to public schools were segregated during this time period. Furthermore, with the introduction of Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement of black voters and racial violence increased. For decades to come African American activists like Booker T. Washington W.E.B. Dubois tried to make progress in civil rights. However, until the 1940’s, very little progress was made (Shi & Tindall). As World War 2 raged on overseas, the tides of civil rights began to turn with the Double V Campaign. According to Thomas Zeiler, this movement “awakened America to the possibilities of transformation in race relations” (Zeiler, p. 12). African Americans were now able to infiltrate the workforce and select branches of the military. The Double V campaign got the ball rolling for the modern civil rights movement and set the stage for equality in at least one aspect of American life, the sport of baseball. Prior to this movement, Jim Crow Laws were also applied to the sport. African Americans were simply not allowed to play professional baseball in the Caucasian dominated National League. However, they still played in a league of their own, referred to as the “Negro League”.  Following the war, some individuals believed it was time to integrate the game of baseball. Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the first to really attempt to make this happen. Rickey selected Jackie Robinson to be the “guinea pig” in the experiment of integrating baseball. He decided that Robinson had the necessary character traits and athletic ability to be the first African American playing in professional organized baseball. He needed someone who was mature and tough enough to endure aggressive racism, Robinson fit his profile. After spending a season with the Montreal Royals in 1946, Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers the following year, making him the first African American to play in the major leagues. At this time, twenty six year old Robinson, a UCLA graduate and World War two veteran, began his career as a professional baseball player and later, a key civil rights advocate.

        Jackie Robinson’s first season as a Brooklyn Dodger could be considered a social experiment. Many expected “all hell to break loose” as a result of the beginning of integration. However, as the season progressed without any major racial incidents, Robinson’s start with the Dodgers “showed America a glimpse of its desegregated future” (Zeiler p. 23). Robinson transformed the game of baseball during this time period. His work on the field and tolerance for discrimination created the “opportunity for blacks to enter organized baseball” (Zeiler p. 23). Although it never went as far as severe violence, he had to endure some blatant racism. For example, the St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike instead of playing against Robinson’s Dodgers. However, the National League, in support of Robinson, claimed that any player that refuse to take the field would be suspended. The Cardinals took the field, but played rough with Robinson. In other instances, Robinson was met with harsh words from both fans and opposing team officials, especially in the south. Despite, the obvious racism, Robinson excelled on the field. That season the Brooklyn Dodgers won the National League pennant, and Robinson was awarded the coveted Rookie of the Year title. Following that season, professional baseball slowly began to integrate, partially as a result of Robinson’s success. After a few seasons with the Dodgers, Branch Rickey told him that he no longer needed to remain passive when confronted with racial abuse. Thus, Robinson began standing up to racist umpires and opposing players. His actions in confronting abuse brought inspiration to the black community, instilling a sense of pride and confidence.  As his baseball career progressed, Robinson rose to fame, securing his place as a key civil rights advocate.

        During his baseball career, Robinson’s fame and stature “guaranteed his prominence in the campaign for civil rights” (Zeiler p. 28). This is evident through his statements to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). His statements, standing up to communism, before the committee are considered a reciprocation of Truman’s creation of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights and it’s report To Secure These Rights. The reported called for desegregation in many areas of society, including the armed forces, interstate transportation, and government employment. In addition To Secure These Rights combated racial inequality through economic aid and means of disenfranchising African American Voters. Communism was another part of the “Truman Crusade”, and as a result of the President’s work with the committee, Robinson testified before HUAC in 1949, undermining communism and calling for civil rights action. At the height of the cold war, the United States was in an anti-communist hysteria. Paul Robeson, a famous black singer and human rights activist, made statements praising the Soviet Union and the U.S Communist Party. This led opponents of civil rights to “paint supporters as deviants who threatened the American way of life” (Zeiler p. 29). Robinson, in an effort to stop the harm that this notion was doing to the civil rights movement, criticized the idea that blacks embraced the Soviet Union in his statement to HUAC. Referring to the aforementioned notion as a misunderstanding, Robinson states “it’s bound to hurt my people’s cause unless it’s cleared up”. He continues by identifying racial discrimination “as un-American a practice as communism” (Zeiler p. 29). He claims that “the more a Negro hates communism because it opposes democracy, the more he is going to hate any other influence that kills off democracy in this country and that goes for racial discrimination” (Robinson p.115). He is denying any large scale association among African Americans with communism. The idea that there is a link between them, as Robinson stated, was harmful to the Civil Rights Movement. Robinson finishes his statement by saying that African Americans are going to continue the fight against racial discrimination and states “We can win our fight without the Communists and we don’t want their help” (Robinson p.114). This is a good example of Robinson using his fame to be an effective civil rights advocate. He is disarming the situation that Robeson’s radical statements caused while furthering the argument against discrimination.

        In addition to utilizing his fame, Robinson effectively expressed his and the rest of the African American community’s ideas to government officials. This is evident through his communications to several presidents and other high ranking officials who were in office during and after his career. For example, Robinson’s Letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In this letter, Robinson is responding to Eisenhower’s statement to the Summit Meeting of Negro Leaders on May 12, 1958, In Washington D.C. Eisenhower was generally favored in the eyes of African Americans, including Robinson, due to his support for civil rights. However, Robinson felt that the president was unwilling make a strong effort to end racism and segregation. This was furthered by Eisenhower’s statement before the Summit, in which he claimed that African Americans needed to “exercise patience on civil rights”. In his response to this statement Robinson argues that “we have been the most patient of all people” (Robinson p. 116). Robinson states that African Americans have endured enough and continues the letter with a call to action towards Eisenhower. Citing the president’s response to Governor Faubus, who resisted the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School, Robinson suggested that Eisenhower release a statement that “America is determined to provide—in the near future—for Negroes—the freedome we are entitled to under the constitution” (Robinson p.117). He is basically asking why Eisenhower can’t take similar action now, as he demonstrated in the Little Rock Nine incident. This letter shows Robinson’s willingness to express the desires of the African American community to have equality to a political leader. Further evidence includes Robinson’s Telegram to President John F. Kennedy and his Letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson. In the telegram to John F. Kennedy, Robinson asks the President to ensure the safety of Martin Luther King jr. at the funeral of a NAACP leader, Medgar Evers. Evers was murdered three days earlier by a white man in Mississippi. Robinson states that the death of Dr. King could be devastating to the morality of civil rights supporters. He calls for Kennedy to “utilize every federal facility to protect a man sorely needed for this era” (Robinson p.118). He states that King is a symbol for forward progress in the civil rights movement and that Americans cannot afford to lose him. Robinson also applauds Kennedy’s “appeal for justice”, the president’s civil rights announcement made a few days prior. This is further evidence of Robinson’s ability to communicate with a President on what needs to be done to protect the progress of the civil rights movement.


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