Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Jackie Robinson, political African American athlete

with 3 comments

by Weiner

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.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 5, 2010 at 07:40

3 Responses

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  1. Hi David,
    It’s interesting that you note that, for the scholars at the conference you attended, Robinson was neglected because he wasn’t perceived to be on the left. For my own research I have been reading about the history of American Communists and sports, and Jackie Robinson comes up in a number of different contexts as politically liberal, if not leftist. I have a feeling that, like for so many others, his conservatism has to be put in the context of the Cold War. I recommend Irwin Silber’s book “Press Box Red: The Story of Lester Rodney, the Communist Who Helped Break the Color Line in American Sports” (Rodney was a well-regarded sports columnist for the Daily Worker). He mentions that Robinson was originally considered politically “militant,” and therefore a risky choice for breaking the barrier, because he had already been court-martialed in the army for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Texas. The NAACP moved to the right during the Cold War, cutting ties with the Communist organizations with which it worked in coalition through much of the 1930s and 1940s. I think Robinson did the same, for similar reasons of self-preservation in his highly visible position. That being said, I agree with you that historians of all fields still tend to have a bad habit of either dismissing or valorizing particular historical figures because of their perceived politics, which may seem in bad taste to the researcher. I wish any of the “approaches and methods” courses I took had frankly addressed these kinds of issues.


    May 5, 2010 at 08:52

  2. Jennifer, your points are well-taken. I’m aware of Robinson’s history in the military, though I still don’t think I would have called him a liberal. I think Robinson may have moved to the right during the Cold War, though as far as I can tell he was never remotely anti-capitalist, and believed in an individualist ethos, along with a dose of Booker T. Washington-style economic self-help for the Black community. He could easily have supported JFK in 1960, for example, and still been anti-Communist. Though the answers to these questions probably require more research.

    And I thoroughly agree that methods courses should address the politicization of scholarship. That might be a tall order for some professors who already politicize their scholarship though.


    May 5, 2010 at 15:49

  3. Jackie Robinson isn’t the easiest person to categorize when
    it comes to politics. He struggles with his own political identity
    throughout his lifetime. Campaigns for Nixon in ’60 but denounces
    Goldwater in ’64 (helps form Republicans for LBJ). But… he’s a
    pretty staunch Rockefeller Republican throughout the 1960s, even
    post-Goldwater. The Journal of Federal History had an article about
    this in ’09.


    January 7, 2011 at 18:42

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