The Dilemma of the Black Athlete as Activist

October 2, 2017
Guest Post

by Gregg Ivers, Professor of Government, American University

In early September 1957, Central High School in Little Rock became the focus of world-wide attention when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus decided to deploy the National Guard to prevent the nine African American students who had applied and been chosen to integrate the school from entering the building. For a three week period, the Central High grounds resembled the set of a science fiction film of the era – upright American soldiers with bayonet-tipped rifles protecting innocent children from an alien force in their midst. Finally, on September 25th, the Little Rock Nine, now with the support of a federalized Arkansas National Guard and the 101st Airborne Division – activated and sent to Little Rock by President Dwight D. Eisenhower – were escorted into Central High to begin a school year that they and everyone else in Little Rock would never forget.

The Little Rock crisis did not escape the attention of former Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson. Just over nine years before, Robinson entered, almost overnight, into the lives of white America when he became the first African American to penetrate one of the most sacrosanct citadels of white supremacy – professional baseball. On April 15th, 1947, when Robinson jogged to first base on Opening Day at Ebbets Field, he did more than just break the color barrier in what was then America’s most popular sport. He destroyed it.

Largely forgotten in the retelling of the Jackie Robinson story is that of the 26,623 fans that attended Robinson’s first game, about 5,000 short of a sell-out, an estimated 14,000 were black. In one day, more black fans attended a Brooklyn Dodgers game than in the franchise’s entire existence. That year, the Dodgers set an attendance record at home, as their fans embraced their new hero. They also became the sport’s leading draw on the road. This was hardly a coincidence.

By the end of his first season, only the most hard-core segregationists failed to embrace Robinson’s remarkable combination of determination, courage, intelligence and athleticism. He was named Rookie of the Year, the first year the award was given out, and was feted with gifts in an end of the year ceremony at Ebbets Field. As Jules Tygiel wrote in Baseball’s Great Experiment, “For blacks, Robinson became a symbol of pride and dignity; to whites, he represented a type of black man far removed from the prevailing stereotypes, whom they could not help but respect.”

But then something happened along the way that changed the public’s perception of Robinson as a grateful black man just happy to have the opportunity to play baseball with whites – the real Jackie Robinson emerged. The Jackie Robinson that baseball fans and sportswriters thought they knew was not the man that Branch Rickey selected to break the color barrier. Robinson never accepted Jim Crow, whether in his occasional run-ins with white authorities while growing up in Pasadena and attending college at UCLA over the restrictions placed on blacks. Most famously, in 1944, Robinson was court-martialed at Fort Hood, Texas, when he refused to sit in the back of a military bus. He was later acquitted.

After his second year with the Dodgers, Robinson began fighting back, in accord with the terms that Rickey had established when he signed with the Dodgers in 1945. On the field, he challenged umpires, confronted opponents who played dirty against him and began to make public statements about the difficulties that blacks faced in baseball and in American society. Had he been white, Robinson would have been lauded as a gamer and a competitor.

Instead, the press began to turn on him, suggesting that he wasn’t grateful for the opportunities he had been “given.” Outside of Brooklyn, Robinson’s popularity steadily diminished. White America embraced black players like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Larry Doby, none of whom ever, at that point, publicly discussed race. By the time he retired in 1956, Robinson was perhaps the most unpopular man in baseball.

After almost six weeks of unprecedented drama at Central High, Robinson had seen enough. Having become the NAACP’s most prominent fund-raiser and public spokesman shortly after his retirement in 1956, Robinson worked with Arkansas NAACP officer Daisy Bates to arrange a phone call to the students. On October 17th – 59 years ago – Robinson spoke to seven of the Little Rock Nine and a few of their parents. A transcript of this conversation, which I recently read in his papers held at the Library of Congress, make clear Robinson’s stature among African Americans. One of the black students, Terrence Roberts, told Robinson, “I would like to say that what we are doing is only following the example you gave us, which is a very fine one, and we are trying to follow in your footsteps.

By the early 1960s, shortly after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, Robinson turned his back on the game he revolutionized, claiming there was no place for him in baseball anymore. He had long become a fixture in the civil rights movement, raising money, participating in the March on Washington and supporting desegregation and voting rights efforts in the Deep South. His papers contain some of the many letters Robinson would write every living president of his post-baseball lifetime, imploring them in frank terms to take action on the various civil rights causes.

Robinson was, in many ways, a broken man when he died in 1972, remembered as the man who integrated white professional baseball, not as a civil rights activist who used baseball to pursue racial justice.

Today, however, Robinson is universally revered, admired as much for his courage as for the excitement he brought to the game. In 1997, Major League Baseball announced that Robinson’s number, 42, would be retired throughout the sport, an honor no other player has ever received.  Recent books and documentaries delve much deeper into Robinson’s civil rights activism the courageous civil rights advocate and praise him for his example and his willingness to use his celebrity to advance racial fairness.

African American Athletes who followed in Robinson’s wake, such as Muhammad Ali, experienced as similar demise in their popularity when they began to speak out on civil rights matters. Claiming conscientious objector status after he was drafted to serve in Vietnam, Ali was banished from boxing for almost four years and widely condemned by sportswriters and a public who loved the young, playful Cassius Clay. Yet, upon his death in 2016, Ali somehow was only remembered as a courageous, principled humanitarian whose position was borne out by a Supreme Court decision exonerating his position.

Twenty years from now, Colin Kaepernick may or may not be remembered for the protest he started when he refused to stand for the national anthem during an NFL pre-season game last year. But people will remember how Kaepernick’s protest slowly took on a life of its own, spreading to other sports and down the chain to colleges, high schools and youth programs. Obviously, Kaepernick’s message has resonated with minority athletes. A growing number of white athletes have supported their non-white teammates, having a better view of a black athlete’s life than many of those who have criticized Kaepernick’s position as selfish. This includes, not surprisingly, the current president, who believes that the First Amendment protects the rights of white Christian supremacists, unrepentant Confederate sympathizers and neo-Nazis, but not those who speak out against them in peaceful fashion.

Jackie Robinson was not just the first African American to integrate white professional baseball. He was the first athlete, regardless of race, to use his status and celebrity to engage the political world and speak out against racism in sports and society. For the black athlete, speaking out has been both a burden and a necessity – something they’re expected to do because they’re black, and yet something they need to do because they’re black. White America has no problem accepting the black athlete and hasn’t for some time, as long as they put the ball in the hoop, the end zone or in the stands. Extending that respect to black athletes as men is the next step.

Professor Ivers is currently working on a book, "Swingin' at Jim Crow: How Jazz Became a Civil Rights Movement".