It was one of the unlikeliest of political marriages, but No. 42 felt he had no choice.
By Steven Goldman on Apr 15 2013, 10:00a
This is the third of three columns on the breaking of the color line in baseball. In the first, I tried to frame Rickey’s decision in terms of the racial politics of the time, and in the second I discussed the experiences of the players who integrated the teams one by one. Though both of those stories involved incidents of pure racism that are difficult to accept, so bald and unashamed was bigotry at that time, this one will be, I think, the most discomfiting of the three, because it deals with Robinson’s twilight years, when the challenges he confronted were not reducible to the racists versus the egalitarians, or more aptly, the blind versus the color-blind. Once off the field for good, Robinson would find that the latter group was nearly non-existent. As even Branch Rickey had to concede, “None of us is color-blind… Some of us just squint a little better than others.”
I am writing this in advance of seeing “42,” so I don’t know to what extent the film deals with the aftermath of Robinson’s career. I expect that they won’t do so extensively, since his crowded hours provide more than enough incident to fill a movie. Normally, this would be a wise decision: think of the misguided decision by writer-director Ron Shelton to base his “Cobb” around Al Stump’s bogus account of his interaction with a dying septuagenarian Ty Cobb. Cobb was an ornery old man, but not uniquely so. All of us, should we live long enough, will be old, decrepit, eccentric, and rage against the dying of the light.None of us will be like Ty Cobb, demon ballplayer. That was the real story, but the film pays it scant attention.
Robinson’s retirement years are far more compelling, and in many ways can be viewed as a tragic coda to his triumph against the forces of racism in baseball, a demonstration that while that victory was a significant moment in the struggle for civil rights, it also left many racists unmoved and still fervently devoted to a segregated society. Robinson continued to grapple with, and to a large extent was thwarted by, the forces he had battled so effectively as a player. It is a different story than that of 1947, less uplifting, but due to its Sisyphusian character, no less heroic.
Specifically, I want to examine Robinson’s decision to endorse and campaign for Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign. Like all of us, Robinson was not without flaws, but for all of his humanity he is probably as close as America has come to producing a secular saint. That this highly principled man chose to associate himself with one of the most unprincipled national politicians of the 20th century always comes as a shock, and even Robinson later said, “I do not consider my decision to back Richard Nixon… one of my finer ones.” (It is notable that Robinson made that assessment before Watergate.) Yet, as with all of Robinson’s important decisions, it was made in the context of trying to advance the cause of civil rights, and while Robinson may have been mistaken, a look at the political players in 1959-1960 makes it clear why he made the choice he did.
“WE CAN MAKE PROGRESS IF OUR NATIONAL LEADERSHIP, OF BOTH MAJOR POLITICAL PARTIES, ONCE DECIDES THAT IT SHOULD AND MUST BE MADE.”-JACKIE ROBINSON, 1957
The 1950s had been, like much of the preceding 80 years, a period of stagnation for civil rights. The Democratic Party was split between northern liberals and southern segregationists, resulting in perpetual paralysis — the Party was afraid that it would fracture over civil rights (correctly, as it turned out) and so Southerners got a high degree of deference. Segregationists also controlled key committee posts in Congress, which allowed them to block civil rights bills before they could be considered by the full House or Senate. President Harry Truman, a Democrat, made some gestures towards civil rights in the late 1940s, but these were calculated to deflect attacks from the left by Henry A. Wallace, his former Secretary of Commerce and the Progressive Party candidate for president in 1948 and the proposals predictably died in Congress. The New Deal, with its focus on raising the living standards of the poor, did help African Americans economically (however grudgingly some southern administrators delivered it), but equal civil and political rights were off limits.
The Republicans, as the party of Abraham Lincoln and emancipation, had traditionally held the loyalty of African Americans — one of the reasons the South worked so hard to keep them disenfranchised. However, in the aftermath of Reconstruction, the Republican Party had undergone a dramatic shift away from its origins as an anti-slavery and workingman’s party (one of Lincoln’s appeals to voters was that slavery devalued paid labor) and became mainly concerned, as with all such entities, mainly with perpetuating itself and its hold on the levers of power and patronage. In doing so, it had largely abandoned its black constituency to Jim Crow. During the long interregnum between Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, blacks trying to decide which of the two major political parties was on his side could fairly choose “None of the above.”
This lack of choice was brought home in 1957. President Dwight Eisenhower believed that the federal government’s only role in ending the second-class status of African Americans was by setting a good example. “Where we have to change the hearts of men, we cannot do it through cold lawmaking,” he said, “but must make these changes by appealing to reason, by prayer, and by constantly working at it through our own efforts.” When the Supreme Court had ruled school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, Eisenhower privately fulminated that appointing Chief Justice Earl Warren to the Court was “the biggest damn fool mistake” of his presidency. In the decision’s immediate aftermath, he asked Washington, DC (one of the most segregated cities in the country) to lead the way in desegregating its schools, but refused to use the bully pulpit to endorse the ruling. “I think it makes no difference whether I endorse it or not,” he said. “The Constitution is as the Supreme Court interprets it, and I must conform to that and do my best to see that it is carried out in this country.” He was asked by the press if he had any advice for the people of the Southern states on how to react to the decision. “Not in the slightest,” he replied.
Over the next few years, at the same time Robinson’s major-league career was winding down, the battle for civil rights heated up. Reactionary forces mobilized against Brown, while at the same time the non-violent civil rights movement came to national prominence with the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks’ act of defiance. Numerous southern state governments made resistance to integration their official policy. At the same time, a campaign of racial violence (the murders of Emmit Till and the Reverend George W. Lee among them) intensified.
The Eisenhower administration proved a reluctant enforcer of equal rights. In the summer of 1957, Eisenhower said, “I can’t imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce me to send federal troops into any area to enforce orders of a federal court, because I believe that [the] common sense of America will never require it.” That fall, nine black students attempted to enroll in the segregated Little Rock Central High School. Governor Orval Faubus deployed the National Guard to blockade the school, ostensibly to maintain law and order but in reality to prevent the students from entering. Faubus complied with a federal court order to remove the Guard, but neglected to replace them with sufficient police to combat the angry white mobs now surrounding the school and rampaging through the city. Eisenhower dithered for almost three weeks before he finally undertook what his Chief of Staff later described as, “a constitutional duty which was the most repugnant to him of all his acts in his eight years at the White House,” sending 1,100 paratroopers to Little Rock and federalizing the Arkansas National Guard, thus taking command away from Faubus.
This was the environment in which Jackie Robinson spent his first year of retirement. Robinson was still a vital player in 1956, but his 37-year-old body was clearly breaking down; he struggled with his weight and the increasing aches and pains that afflict the aging athlete. Simultaneously, his relationships with manager Walter Alston, general manager Buzzie Bavasi, and owner Walter O’Malley had become strained. When the owner of the Chock Full O’ Nuts lunch counter and coffee company offered Robinson an executive position, his decision to retire was clinched — baseball would not offer a black man a coaching career at that time, and would not for some time. “I am through with baseball,” Robinson wrote, “because I know that, in a matter of time, baseball would have been through with me.”
Robinson neglected to tell the Dodgers of his decision, opting instead to sell the news to Look magazine for $50,000. In the interim between that decision and publication, the Dodgers demonstrated their own feelings about Robinson’s future by trading him to the arch-rival Giants. Robinson told both teams he was still considering his future, revealed as a half-truth at best whenLook published. Robinson felt betrayed, the Dodgers felt deceived, and a historic relationship ended in bitterness.
“I JUST HAVE A FEELING THAT THERE’S SOMETHING THAT I HAVE TO DO — AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS.”-JACKIE ROBINSON, 1957
An athlete affects his world by being stronger or faster than his opponent. Once his career is over, he no longer possesses those weapons. They don’t apply outside the stadium, and even if they somehow did, he no longer possesses them. He has spent them, or age has robbed him of them. As a baseball player, Robinson was such a dynamic force that he could warp the game around him — see, for example, Robinson’s steal of home in the eighth inning of the first game of the 1955 World Series. In retirement, Robinson sought to continue affecting his world, the cause of civil rights equality in particular. He went about this in several ways — through a ghostwritten/dictated newspaper column that was ostensibly about sports but was usually concerned with civil rights, speaking and fundraising on behalf of the NAACP, and through direct engagement with national political candidates.
Robinson’s first post-career presidential election was wide open. Eisenhower, term-limited and ailing, had offered tepid support for Vice-President Nixon (asked by the press in August 1960 to name “an example of a major idea of [Nixon’s] that you had adopted,” Eisenhower replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one”), who had long since rendered himself anathema to the American left. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party showed little interest in giving two-time loser Adlai Stevenson another try. Robinson initially supported Senator Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat of Minnesota; Humphrey had come to national prominence due to his progressive stand on civil rights at the 1948 Democratic Party convention (“The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights”). Humphrey lacked Senator John F. Kennedy’s money and organization, and he was quickly swamped by the senator from Massachusetts.
Now Robinson faced a difficult choice. In 1957, just before the Little Rock crisis, a civil rights bill had finally escaped committee hell and had made its way to the floor of the Senate due to the advocacy of majority leader Lyndon Johnson. Johnson had a long history of following the Southern line on civil rights, and was known to be an acolyte of the veteran Georgia Senator Richard B. Russell, a man who in the aftermath of Brown had made the term “Constitutional Democrat” code for “strict segregationist.” Despite this history, Johnson, nursing presidential aspirations, saw political reasons to allow passage of a civil rights bill: he wanted to take the issue away from Nixon and the Republicans, but — at least, this is what he said to Southern opponents of the bill — he also saw that the tide of public opinion was turning against Jim Crow and compromise was the only hope of staving off total defeat. “The problem with you is you don’t understand that the world is trying to turn to the left,” he told a Texas congressman. “You can either get out in front and try to give some guidance, or you can continue to fight upstream and be overwhelmed or be miserable.” It is also possible — and here we get into the realm of speculation — that Johnson was already experiencing the intellectual growth that would eventually make him the greatest presidential advocate of civil rights since Lincoln.
Even if that were the case, Johnson still had to compromise to get the South to go along. Opposition to the bill became centered on a clause that would have allowed those accused of civil rights violations to be tried solely by a judge rather than by a judge and jury. This was key given that blacks were almost totally excluded from juries in the South; trials of whites accused of crimes against blacks held before all-white juries almost inevitably ended in acquittals. Johnson allowed this passage to be amended away to assure passage of the bill as a whole. Among those senators voting in favor of the amendment: John F. Kennedy.
Supporters of the bill, Jackie Robinson included, thought the bill had been gutted. “Am opposed to the civil rights bill in his present form,” he wrote in a telegram to African American presidential assistant E. Frederic Morrow. “We disagree that half a loaf is better than none… Hope the President will veto it.” It passed, with five Republicans and 21 Democrats voting against. Signed by Eisenhower, it had precisely zero effect.
The Branch Rickey Miracle
If Johnson’s history of supporting segregation hadn’t made him unacceptable to Robinson, the 1957 Civil Rights Act sealed the case. If Kennedy’s vote for the jury amendment was the first strike against him in Robinson’s eyes, Johnson becoming Kennedy’s running mate was the second. The third came in a face-to-face meeting with candidate JFK. Robinson found that Kennedy “couldn’t or wouldn’t look me straight in the eye,” and was appalled when Kennedy said that being from Boston, he had had little interaction with African Americans or knowledge of their problems. Robinson was appalled. If you’re running for president, he asked, don’t you think you ought to know? Kennedy had no answer.
Robinson had correctly sized up Kennedy’s interest not just in civil rights, but in domestic issues in general. “Foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle, isn’t it?” He once asked Nixon. “I mean, who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25 compared to something like Cuba?” When Ted Sorensen was writing Kennedy’s first inaugural address, Kennedy said, “Let’s drop the domestic stuff altogether.” The only reference to rights of any kind in the address was to “human rights… to which we are committed today at home and around the world.” This had the effect of placing the rights of American citizens at the same level as those of political dissidents in the Soviet gulag archipelago as far as the government was concerned.
As Vice-President, Nixon had been removed from the scrum over the 1957 bill, and had said all the right things about civil rights. “We cannot continue to have a system in which Negro citizens do not have full equality of opportunity,” he said after the Little Rock confrontation. There is a palpable irony that Robinson, in meeting with Nixon, found him more personally charming than Kennedy given that almost everyone who encountered the two men had the diametrically opposite reaction. Yet, this does not go far enough in illustrating just how unlikely was the Robinson-Nixon alliance, the sheerincongruity of it. Robinson’s entire life was about doing positive good works. Nixon built himself up by tearing others down — Jerry Vorhis, Helen Gahagan Douglas, Alger Hiss. Whether one agreed or disagreed with his position on these individuals, Nixon’s greatest accomplishments in politics prior to his presidency involved advancing Richard Nixon through the destruction of others. His support of civil rights, and indeed of almost any cause, was only as deep as it might benefit him. Moreover, he shared Kennedy’s disinterest in domestic policy.
This would become more obvious in 1968, when he would win the White House in part on the “Southern strategy” of capitalizing on the backlash against civil rights that began in 1965. In 1960, Robinson would have to figure it out for himself. It didn’t take long. Like Kennedy, Nixon got three strikes from Robinson. First, Nixon refused to campaign in Harlem; JFK had. Second, Nixon’s running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, said that if elected, Nixon would put an African American in his cabinet, a claim the Nixon campaign was embarrassingly quick to repudiate. The third strike not only finished Nixon with Robinson, but with the presidency for the next eight years.
In October, 1960, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. participated in a lunch-counter sit-in at a Rich’s department store in Atlanta and was arrested, along with 37 other protestors, for refusing to leave private property. Rich’s announced it would not press charges, and everyone but King was released upon signing their own $500 bond. A judge in neighboring DeKalb County ordered King held on a traffic charge. The previous month, he had been stopped for driving without a Georgia driver’s license. He was given a one-year suspended sentence and fined $25. With the arrest in Atlanta, Judge Oscar Mitchell determined that Dr. King had violated the terms of his probation. King was brought before Mitchell in handcuffs. His attorneys argued that the original sentence was twice that allowed by law, and that his Atlanta arrest had been unconstitutional and was therefore void. The judge was not swayed and sentenced King to jail for four months at hard labor. He refused to release King on bail pending an appeal.
Said a spokesman for Georgia governor Ernest Vandiver, “I think the maximum sentence for Martin Luther King might do him good, might make a law-abiding citizen out of him and teach him to respect the law of Georgia.”
Anything might have happened to Dr. King while in the hands of the Georgia penal system, but it was an election year, and the nation was on notice as to how the two major candidates responded to issues affecting minorities and civil rights. Senator Kennedy called King’s wife to express his support. Subsequently, when Judge Mitchell told Vandiver that he would release King if the Kennedys provided him with political cover, Robert Kennedy telephoned and asked him to release King. The judge acceded to the request, freeing King on $2000 bail.
Nixon did nothing — not for Robinson’s lack of trying. He begged Nixon to call King. Nixon refused. “He thinks calling Martin would be ‘grandstanding,'” Robinson told Nixon speechwriter William Safire, “Nixon doesn’t deserve to win.” In his autobiography, Robinson said that he came close to quitting the campaign and denouncing Nixon on several occasions. He did not, perhaps because of his antipathy for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. Robinson himself had a hard time explaining why he stayed. “It has something to do with stubbornness,” he wrote, “about continuing to want to believe in people even when everything indicates they are no longer worthy of support.”
After King was released, his father, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. announced he would vote for Kennedy “because the Democratic nominee had called his son’s wife to express sympathy on his imprisonment. The elder Mr. King, a Baptist, said he had planned to vote against Kennedy because of his religion.” Said Governor Vandiver, “It is a sad commentary on the year 1960 when the Democratic nominee for the presidency makes a phone call to the home of the foremost racial agitator in the country.”
The African American vote, which had seemed poised to go to Nixon, suddenly shifted towards Kennedy. The election was one of the closest in history, with Kennedy beating Nixon in the popular vote by 0.1 percent. As many as five states may have been swung to Kennedy by his response to the King incident. In analyzing the election that November, the New York Timesreported, “the shift of Negro voters to the Democrats between 1956 and 1960 was especially dramatic in the South… The most import single campaign move was undoubtedly Senator Kennedy’s telephone call of sympathy to the wife of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when the Southern integration leader was briefly in a Georgia prison on a traffic charge. Mr. Nixon made no comment on the King episode.” In his 1962 book Six Crises, Nixon regretted not calling the judge, though he still insisted that the call would have been grandstanding.
Robinson would remain involved in politics for the rest of his life, suffering further disillusionment when his favored candidate, the liberal Republican (such a thing was possible then) Nelson Rockefeller, was treated disrespectfully at the 1964 Republican Party convention by adherents of the extreme right nominee Senator Barry Goldwater. Robinson considered Goldwater to be a racist; the senator had voted against Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act — the bill the movement had been waiting for – supposedly on states’ rights grounds. As with “Constitutional Democrat,” “states’ rights” had long been a kind of dog-whistle for those who believed in keeping blacks in a position of subservience. Goldwater’s appeal to the segregationists can be seen in Senator Strom Thurmond’s decision to switch parties and endorse him, saying the Democrats had, “protected the Supreme Court in a reign of judicial tyranny.”
Unable to ally himself with the Democrats, Robinson, “was fighting a last-ditch battle to keep the Republicans from becoming completely white… I lost my battle when Goldwater was nominated.” Watching the Goldwaterites celebrate, Robinson said, “I now believe I know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”
And yet politics hadn’t pitched a shutout against Robinson. Things had gotten better. As Southern sheriffs had turned their batons on peaceful marchers, Kennedy had finally awakened to the cause. He was murdered before he could budge the issue in Congress. Johnson made passage of civil rights legislation a memorial to the slain president. After a filibuster in the Senate lasting nearly two months, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. Perhaps nothing signified that more than Johnson going before Congress on March 15, 1965, following brutal police attacks on peaceful marchers for voting rights who were trying to walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and saying, “What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it is not just Negroes but really it is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
The bill Johnson proposed that night became another landmark piece of legislation, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Neither it nor the Civil Rights Act ended the problem of an unequal, bifurcated society, not by a long shot. Speaking of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Malcolm X (with whom Robinson had several public disagreements) said, “I very much doubt you can make a citizen out of anyone you don’t regard as a human being.” As far as the South was concerned, that was and would remain the issue. Johnson predicted that the passage of these laws would cause a political realignment that would cost the Democratic Party the South for 50 years. Time has proven him correct, though, he might have underestimated just how long the South would stay in the red column, or the rise of other issues that would keep them there.
Thus, though the times were slowly changing, the post-racial society remains a work in progress. One of the oldest and most frightening stories is also the truest. In Numbers, one of the five books of the Pentateuch, Moses, having conducted the Hebrews out of Egypt and guided them through a long series of adventures on their way to the Promised Land, annoys the Almighty in a non-specific way (possibly involving an insufficiently reverential smiting of a rock) and pays a very high price: He will not be allowed to complete the journey. Later, in Deuteronomy, the penalty is spelled out in more detail. Moses will get to see the goal he has been working towards for decades, but he won’t get to experience it: “Ascend these heights… and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving the Israelites as their holding,” the Almighty tells Moses. “You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it.”
Regardless of Moses’s sin, this has to be seen as a tragic finish to a heroic story: The prophet never gets his just reward, never gets to enjoy the fruit of his labors. Regardless of whether one believes in the literal truth of the stories in the Bible, Moses’s end illustrates a profound truth. All too often, our heroes never get to see the end of their labors. Think of Abraham Lincoln murdered in 1865 just as the Civil War was ending, Franklin Roosevelt suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1945, with World War II rapidly coming to a victorious close and his dream of establishing the United Nations about to be realized. It was to the end of the Moses story that the Reverend King referred to when he said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop… I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
King gave that speech on April 3, 1968. He was assassinated the next day. Robinson was spared the violent end that was promised him by so many racists in 1947 (Phillies players even aimed their bats at him as if they were rifles), but he still died far too young, his health destroyed by diabetes, hypertension, and, one suspects, the great energies he had had to contain and bear up under. Robinson made his last public remark prior to the second game of the 1972 World Series at Cincinnati, just nine days before his death at 53. In this last appearance, he put aside the subject of equality in the United States and returned to the more manageable subject of equality in baseball, the cause for which he had done so much. He was awaiting the day, he said, “I can look over at the third-base line and see a black man as manager.” That day would come in 1975. Robinson was long gone.
The infamous New York Daily News columnist Dick Young once wrote that the tragedy of Jackie Robinson’s life was that nothing he did after baseball could live up to what he did in baseball. “How could it?” Robinson asked. “What could I have done? The son of a bitch knows that.”
He might have added, truthfully, that everything was aligned against him. You couldn’t steal home against Jim Crow — the racists had bought off all the umpires.
Sources: Off the Record (Buzzie Bavasi); At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Taylor Branch); Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 (Taylor Branch); Master of the Senate (Robert A. Caro); The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II (William H. Chafe); An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 (Robert Dallek); Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson, from Baseball to Birmingham (David Falkner); Bums (Peter Golenbock); The Civil Rights Era: Origins and Development of National Policy (Hugh Davis Graham); The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972 (William Manchester);Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (James T. Patterson);Nixonland (Rick Perlstein); Jackie Robinson (Arnold Rampersad); I Never Had it Made (Jackie Robinson); The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon (Anthony Summers); The Jackie Robinson Reader (Jules Tygiel, ed.).