Jackie Robinson, political African American athlete
I recently attended a baseball game at Mets game Citi/Taxpayer (no character yet, but a fine place to watch a ballgame). Staring at the players numbers, I was confused. They were all wearing #42. I then realized that they were honouring the great Jackie Robinson. And this reminded me of an interesting academic experience of my recent past.
A couple years ago, I attended the National Council for Black Studies conference in Atlanta, Georgia. As their website indicates, the NCBS promotes “academic excellence and social responsibility. It is both a scholarly and a political organization.
I was there presenting some of my work on Horace Kallen and Alain Locke. Needless to say, I felt a bit out of place, not only because I was one of the few white attendees and presenters, but because I try to maintain a strict commitment to academic objectivity. I think objective scholarship can then inform political discussion, but that scholarship itself should be as disinterested and unbiased as possible (this belief in objective scholarship makes me a dinosaur in some academic circles). This conference and this organization expressly repudiated this goal.
Nonetheless, I found the presentations extremely fascinating, insightful and informative. The panel I remember best was the one about sports and politics. One student spoke of the controversy surrounding Don Imus. A history grad student at Purdue gave an excellent talk on Tommie Smith and John Carlos, of the famed Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He investigated Smith and Carlos’ activist past at San Jose State University.
The third graduate student, also a historian, bemoaned the lack of African American athletes who display any political activism today. Influenced by journalist William C. Rhoden’s controversial book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete, this student expressed his ire for apolitical superstars like Michael Jordan, as he traced the history of African American athletes who engaged in political activism, from Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali through to Smith and Carlos in 1968. And yet, when he was done, I was confused.
First, Jack Johnson’s political commitments were dubious at best (his political role came from his individualistic and hedonistic rejection of racial norms and prejudices). But my main confusion was not about what the speaker said, but what he didn’t say. I raised my hand in the Q and A and noted: “In your talk about Black political athletes, you mentioned Johnson, and Ali, and Smith and Carlos, but you did not mention Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, or Jackie Robinson. Why is that?”
The last omission was especially startling. While one can argue that Louis and Owens were used as tools by the American political establishment for propaganda purposes, Jackie Robinson was not a tool for anyone. Robinson paved the way for all future Black professional athletes in the United States. I’ll never forget the lecture I heard from William Gienapp, the late Harvard historian who taught the famous undergraduate course on “Baseball and American Society,” (he passed away before I could take it). He argued that baseball typically followed, rather than led the broader American society and culture, except in one instance: that of Jackie Robinson’s breaking the colour barrier. According to Gienapp, Robinson’s entry into the Major Leagues spurred and influenced the modern civil rights movement.
Robinson, however, was more than a mere athlete. An active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a supporter of Black business, Robinson was extremely politically engaged. He was also conservative. He supported the Vietnam War, and Nixon over Kennedy in 1960. He had a famous and public dispute with Black communist (and former professional football player) Paul Robeson. His views put him in the minority among African Americans, yet he refused to betray his convictions, even if he softened some of his stances towards the end of his life.
When I asked my question, the speaker responded: “When I thought of political Black athletes, Jackie Robinson didn’t even enter my mind.”
I found this interesting but problematic. According to this standard, for an athlete to be political, he had to be on the Left. This view, I think, denigrates the conviction that characterized Robinson and any athlete who forgoes the life of apolitical luxury that sports salaries allow to venture out into the realm of politics. We can disagree with Robinson’s views and yet admire his role in American history and his dedication to bettering his country and his people.
As I’ve written about before, the involvement of American athletes in politics is something of a mixed bad. I think it’s ok if athletes use their fame as a platform for political ends, provided their opinions are informed (and not the mindless conservatism of a Curt Schilling). My preference would be for these ends to be progressive, like those of linebacker Scott Fujita, who actively supports gay rights and is pro-choice. But when the views are informed and conservative, like Jackie Robinson’s, I cannot begrudge them even if I would have disagreed with them at the time.
UPDATE: As my buddy Brendan pointed out, I should also recognize Canadian hoopster Steve Nash, who has come out against the racist Arizona immigration bill, as have the rest of the Phoenix Suns, who will be wearing a “Los Suns” jersey for tonight’s game in protest. San Diego Padres firstbaseman Adrian G0nzalez has spoken against the bill as well.