JACKIE ROBINSON, Political life after baseball

Below is an excerpt from baseball great Jackie Robinson’s autobiography.

Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson turned a page in history when he became the first African American player to cross baseball’s “color barrier” and play in the Major Leagues in 1947.  Robinson played 10 stellar seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers before retiring from a Hall of Fame career.

After baseball Robinson went to work for Chock Full O’ Nuts as a spokesman then continued his efforts to advance civil rights.  He became actively involved in the campaign for Republican candidate Richard Nixon in the 1960 Presidential elections.  Robinson opted to support Nixon over John F. Kennedy because he liked the work that Nixon had done in the area of civil rights during Nixon’s years as Vice President.  However Robinson later described his regret on having supported Nixon.

Two incidents during the 1960 campaign were quite disillusioning to Robinson.  In one incident Nixon was asked to comment on a statement by running mate Henry Cabot Lodge who stated that in a Nixon Administration a black would be named to the Cabinet; Nixon commented that Lodge was speaking on his own behalf.  Later during the campaign Nixon refused to speak out when civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was locked in a full-security prison for a minor motor vehicle infraction.

Further Nixon refused to campaign in Harlem (while Kennedy did).  These incidents drew Robinson a great deal of criticism from the African American community for his support of the Nixon campaign.  By the end of the campaign the Kennedy ticket was looking more attractive to Robinson, but he had already committed to Nixon.

Jackie Robinson did establish good ties with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller (who later became Gerald Ford’s Vice President).  Robinson supported Rockefeller’s bid during the 1964 Republican Primiaries.  However after the GOP ticket went to Barry Goldwater, Robinson was disgusted at what he saw during the 1964 Republican National Convention.  

Chapter XV of Robinson’s autobiography I Never Had It Made has been transcribed below.  This chapter, titled “On Begin Black Among The Republicans” describes the eye-opening experiences of Robinson within the Republican Party.  Many of the sentiments he expressed in 1964 were heard again some four decades later following the 2004 Republican convention.


Jackie Robinson

Chapter XV: On Being Black Among The Republicans

My first meeting with Nelson Rockefeller occurred in 1962 during a public event at which we were both speakers.  The Nelson Rockefeller personal charm and charisma had now become legendary.  It is almost impossible not to like the man.  He gives two distinct impressions: that he is sincere in whatever he is saying and that, in spite of his fantastic schedule, power, and influence – at that specific moment of your contact – he has shut everything else out and is focusing his complete and concentrated attention on you.

While I admired his down-to-earth manner and outgoing ways instantly, I was anything but overwhelmed at our initial meeting.  I am aware that the enormously wealthy have time to spread charm as they like.  They have their worries, but survival is not one of them.  I wasn’t about to be taken in instantly by the Nelson Rockefeller charm.  After all, Richard Nixon had turned the charm on me too (although his is a bit brittle compared with Rockefeller’s) and look how that had turned out.

I knew that Rockefeller’s family had given enormous sums to black education and other philanthropic causes for black people and that at that time (nearly twenty years ago) a significant number of black college presidents, black professionals, and a significant number of leaders of national stature had received a college education, financed by Rockefeller gifts.  While I have no need to detract from the contributions of the family to black education, I felt it certainly must be weighed in terms of what went into amassing one of the world’s greatest fortunes.

As for Nelson Rockefeller himself, I knew little or nothing about his politics.  As far as I was concerned, he was just another rich guy with politics as a toy.  Our first chat had nothing to do with politics.  In fact, the governor took advantage of the occasion to tell me about a private problem.  Since I was an officer of the Chock Full O’Nuts Restaurant chain at that time, he thought I might be able to help him.  It seemed the Rockefeller family was unhappy about one of our advertising jingles which assured the public that our coffee was  as good as any “Rockefeller’s money can buy.” Representations about the family’s feeling in the matter had been made through legal and diplomatic channels, but the offensive jingle was still being aired on radio and television commercials.  I promised to mention the matter to Bill Black, Chock’s president.  I was surprised at Mr. Black’s reaction.  When I reported the Rockefeller concern, he snapped, “Good!  Let them sue.  We can use the publicity.”

As far as I was concerned, that was the end of that.  As far as I knew, I’d probably never be in contact with the governor again.  However, I began to change my mind about Rockefeller, when I learned that the extent of his support for a man I admired deeply, Martin Luther King.

When student sit-ins began in the South and many so-called liberals criticized them, Governor Rockefeller told the press that he believed the protesting youngsters were morally justified.  I also learned that, unlike Richard Nixon, who failed to speak out about the Georgia jailing of Dr. King, the governor had promptly wired the President asking for his protection.

I also learned of some of the governor’s unpublicized actions.  Before Rockefeller became governor, the world was stunned by the attempted assassination of Dr. King by a black woman in a Harlem department store.  Rushed to Harlem Hospital, Dr. King, who had been wounded by a letter opener plunged into a spot just below the tip of his aorta, immediately was put in the care of a team of crack surgeons headed by Dr. Louis Wright.  The newspapers gave intensive publicity to the fact that the then-Governor Harriman had sped to the hospital escorted by police convoy with shrieking sirens.  Harriman ordered every available facility utilized to save Dr. King.  He then stayed at the hospital for several hours, keeping vigil and awaiting word of the civil right’s leader’s condition.  Governor Harriman deservedly got credit for his concern about a beloved black leader.  But it was Nelson Rockefeller who quietly issued orders to have the hospital bill sent to him.

I learned that the governor had made frequent gifts to Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  I was on the scene a few hours after hate-crazed bigots burned Georgia churches to the ground.  Dr. King asked me top head a national fund-raising drive to restore the churches.  Two of the first substantial donations were made by my then-boss Mr. William Black and by Governor Rockefeller.  We did rebuild those churches.

Yet with all his goodwill gestures and philanthropies, there was one fact which bothered me deeply about the Rockefeller Administration in 1962.  Although New York has, for many years, enjoyed a reputation as a liberal state, the higher echelons of the state government were all white.  There were no blacks at top-level, policy making positions.  There was not even one black man or woman who had a direct line to the governor and who could alert him to the concerns and grievances of black people.  I wondered if Nelson Rockefeller’s generosity to black causes was a compartmentalized activity of his private life, and I was sufficiently curious to write him a letter.

My letter to the governor was a harshly honest letter.  I said I felt no self-respecting black man could respect an administration that had no blacks in significant jobs.  Governor Rockefeller met my honesty head on.  He telephoned me personally and told me how much he appreciated my truthfulness.  He admitted that things were not as they should be for blacks in state government and that he wanted to take steps to correct this; he suggested we meet and talk things over within the next few days.

In the course of that telephone call, I bluntly said, “If you don’t want to hear the down-to-earth truth about how you are thought of in the black community, let’s just forget about it.”

He assured me that he wanted and needed unbiased advice.  The meeting, unadvertised in the press and unreported after it took place, was held in a private room at the top of Radio City Music Hall.  About a dozen to fifteen people whom I had invited attended.  For some three hours we told the governor our grievances about the failure of his administration to include blacks in the political and government action.  The people there didn’t hesitate to recite harsh facts.  He was aware of some of the facts we gave him; other facts seemed to shock him.  He accepted our criticism, our recommendations for change, and he acted to bring about reforms.  He did not bring any apologists or token black leaders into the meeting to justify himself.  He brought an open mind and someone to take notes.

Within a few months after that meeting, the governor had implemented virtually all the recommendations that the ad hoc committee had made.  Out of that one meeting came some sweeping and drastic changes, some unprecedented appointments of blacks to high positions, ensuring influence by blacks in the governor’s day-to-day policy decisions.  Some of the governor’s top-level people were very unhappy about these changes.

In 1964 Governor Rockeller asked me to become one of six deputy national directors of his campaign.  I had spent seven years at Chock Full O’Nuts.  I decided to resign from my job rather than ask for leave.  The knowledge I had acquired about the business world, I considered invaluable.  I had been criticized by some of my fellow officers in the company who genuinely felt I took the part of the employees to often, that I was too soft on them.  Even so I had been given generous raises and benefits, allowed to purchase a healthy bundle of stock, and been elected to the board.  I was becoming restless; I wanted to involve myself in politics as a means of helping black people and I wanted my own business enterprises.  I had been increasingly convinced of the need for blacks to become more integrated into the mainstream of the economy.  I was not thinking merely of job integration.  A statement Malcolm X made was more impressive.  Referring to some college students who were fighting to be served in Jim Crow restaurants, Malcolm said he wanted not only the cup of coffee but also the cup and saucer, the counter, the store and the land on which the restaurant stood.

I believed blacks ought to become producers, manufacturers, developers, and creators of businesses, providers of jobs.  For too long we had been spending much too much money on liquor while we owned too few liquor stores and were not even manufacturing it.  If you found a black man making shoes or candy or ice cream it was a rarity.  We talked about not having capital, but we needed to learn to take a chance, to be daring, to pool capital, to organize our buy power so that the millions we spent did not leave our communities to be stacked up in th downtown banks.  In addition to the economic security we could build with green power, we could use economic means to reinforce black power.  How much more effective our demands for a piece of the action would be if we were negotiating from the strength of our own self-reliance rather than stating our case in the role of a beggar or someone out for charity.  We live in a materialistic society in which money doesn’t only talk – it screams.  I could not forget that some of the very ballplayers who swore the most fervently that they wouldn’t play with me because I was black were the first to begin helping me, giving me tips and advice, as soon as they became aware that I could be helpful to them in winning the few thousand more dollars players receive as world champs.  The most prejudiced of the club owners were not as upset about the game being contaminated by black players as they were by fearing the integration would hurt them in the pocketbooks.  Once they found out that more – not fewer – customers, black and white, were coming through those turnstiles, their prejudices were suppressed.

When Governor Rockefeller invited me on board his campaign ship, I had no idea of any long-term relationship in politics.  I saw this as a sign that now was the time for me to enter into a new world of political involvement with a man I respected.  At the same time I could be free to pursue some business endeavors that had been proposed to me.  I had been approached about becoming a key organizer in a projected, new insurance company, an integrated firm that, I hoped, could be a force in correcting some of the unjust practices of some insurance firms that treat blacks unfairly.  At this time the group organizing a new bank in Harlem – Freedom National – had asked me to help put it together and to become chairman of the board, and there were other business ventures in which I felt I might be able to play a vital role.  When I submitted my resignation to Bill Black, he understood my aspirations.  He didn’t want me to leave, and he was genuinely concerned as to whether I was making the wisest move.  He tried to persuade me to stay.  I appreciated his attitude, but my mind was made up.  I joined the Rockefeller headquarters.

One of the first things that became clear to me was that I had not been called on to be the black adviser to the campaign.  Often white politicians secure the services of a black man and slot him only for appearances and activities within the black community.  Sometimes they do this to avoid letting whites know that they are making a strong pitch for black support.  During the Rockefeller campaign I met with groups and made appearances before audiences which were sometimes predominately black, and other times mainly white.  On several occasions, when the governor came into town for a meeting with politicians or community people, I would accompany him.  At some of the larger meetings, I would be asked to introduce the governor.

I was not as sold on the Republican party as I was on the governor.  Every chance I got, while I was campaigning, I said plainly what I thought of the right-wing Republicans and the harm they were doing.  I felt the GOP was a minority party in term of numbers of registered voters and could not win unless they updated their social philosophy and sponsored candidates and principles to attract the young, the black, and the independent voter.  I said this often from public, and frequently Republican, platforms.  By and large Republicans had ignored blacks and sometimes handpicked a few servile leaders in the black community to be their token “niggers”.  How would I sound trying to go all out to sell Republicans to black people?  They’re not buying.  They know better.

I admit freely that I think, live, and breathe black first and foremost.  That is one of the reasons I was so committed to the governor and so opposed to Senator Barry Goldwater.  Early in 1964 I wrote a Speaking Out piece for The Saturday Evening Post.  A Barry Goldwater victory would insure that the GOP would be completely the white man’s party.  What happened at San Francisco when Senator Goldwater became the Republican standard-bearer confirmed my prediction.

I wasn’t altogether caught of guard by the victory of the reactionary forces in the Republican party, but I was appalled by the tactics they used to stifle their liberal opposition.  I was a special delegate to the convention through an arrangement made by the Rockefeller office. That convention was one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of my life. The hatred I saw was unique to me because it was hatred directed against a white man.  It embodied a revulsion for all he stood for, including his enlightened attitude toward black people.

A new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP.  As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.

The same high-handed methods had been there.

The same belief in the superiority of one religious or racial group over another was here.  Liberals who fought so hard and so vainly were afraid not only of what would happen to the GOP but of what would happen to America.  The Goldwaterites were afraid – afraid not to hew strictly to the line they had been spoon-fed, afraid to listen to logic and reason if it was not in their script.

I will never forget the fantastic scene of Governor Rockefeller’s ordeal as he endured what must have been three minutes of hysterical abuse and booing which interrupted his fighting statement which the convention managers had managed to delay until the wee hours of the morning.  Since the telecast was coming from the West Coast, that meant that many people in other sections of the country, because of the time differential, would be in their beds.  I don’t think he has ever stood taller than that night when he refused to be silenced until he had had his say.

It was a terrible hour for the relatively few black delegates who were present.  Distinguished in their communities, identified with the cause of Republicanism, an extremely unpopular cause among blacks, they had been served notice that the party they had fought for considered them just another bunch of “niggers”.  They had no real standing in the convention, no clout.  They were unimportant and ignored.  One bigot from one of the Deep South states actually threw acid on a black delegate’s suit jacket and burned it.  Another one, from the Alabama delegation where I was standing at the time of the Rockefeller speech, turned on me menacingly while I was shouting “C’mon Rocky” as the governor stood his ground.  He started up in his seat as if to come after me. His wife grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

“Turn him loose, lady, turn him loose,” I shouted.

I was ready for him.  I wanted him badly, but luckily for him he obeyed his wife.

I had been very active on that convention floor.  I was one of those trying to help bring about a united front among the black delegates in the hope of thwarting the Goldwater drive.  George Parker had courageously challenged Goldwater in vain and Edward Brooke had lent his uncompromising sincerity to the convention.  I sat in with them after the nomination as they agonized about what they should do.  Some were for walking out of the convention and even out of the party.  Others felt that, as gloomy as things looked, the wisest idea was to remain within the party and fight. Throughout the convention, I had been interviewed several times on network television.  When I was asked my opinion of Barry Goldwater, I gave it.  I said I thought he was a bigot.  I added that he was not as important as the forces behind him.  I was genuinely concerned, for instance, about Republican National Committee Chairman William Miller, slated to become the Vice Presidential candidate.  Bill Miller could have become the Agnew of his day if he had been elected.  He was a man who apparently believed you never said a decent thing in political campaigning if you could think of a way to be nasty, insinuating, and abrasive.  What with the columns I had written about Goldwater, The Saturday Evening Post article, and the television and radio interview, I had achieved a great deal of publicity about the way I felt about Goldwater.

Although I know it is the way of politicians to forget their differences and unify around the victor, it disgusted me to see how quickly the various anti-Goldwater GOP kingpins got converted. Richard Nixon, who hadn’t really fought Goldwater and had in fact been an ally, naturally became one of his most staunch supporters.  You could expect that.  Governor Romney, who had fought the Goldwater concept so vigorously, got religion.  The convert who around the most cynical feelings in my mind was Governor William Scranton.  When Governor Rockefeller had withdrawn from the race, during the primaries, Rockefeller supporters turned to Scranton because he had become the governor’s choice.  At the request of the governor I had a meeting with Scranton in his beautiful home in Pennsylvania.

Governor Scranton welcomed me graciously, introduced me to his family, and conducted me to a veranda where we sat and sipped iced tea.  The governor pledged that he was going to put up a terrific fight against Goldwater.  He expressed his gratitude for Governor Rockefeller’s support and for my agreeing to come to see him.  For at least ten minutes he orated about Barry Goldwater, what a threat Goldwaterism is to the country and the party.  I didn’t ask him for it, but he gave his solemn oath that even if Goldwater won the nomination, he, Bill Scranton, could never conceivably, under any circumstances, support him.  Even if he wanted to, which he said he didn’t, it would be political suicide in his state for him to join a Goldwater bandwagon.  He was unequivocal about this, and months later, when I saw on television how quickly Governor Scranton pledged his loyalty to nominee Goldwater, how eagerly he engaged in some of the most revolting high-level white Uncle Tomism I’ve ever seen – fawning on Goldwater and vigorously campaigning for him around the country – I had to wonder if this was, indeed, the same man who had nearly sworn on the Bible that he could never do what he was doing.

In marked contrast to the Scranton flip-flop, there were some Republicans who proved themselves true to their principles, party loyalty not withstanding.  Senator Jacob Jarvits stated flatly that he could not support Goldwater; Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, who had sounded off early about the Goldwater threat, announced that he would be running his own campaign in that same states where Bill Scranton had had a change of heart.  Scott, whom I had admired for years because of his liberal words and legislation, took his chance of letting it be known he was snubbing the head of his party’s national ticket.  As for Governor Rockefeller, while he did not publicly reject Goldwater, it was no secret that he didn’t break his back to try to help elect him.  No doubt, the Senator and his campaign manager, Bill Miller, had things more comfortable for the governor symbolically to go fishing by not going down on their hands and knees to beg for his participation. There was a great business of calling unity meetings of all prominent Republicans.  Unity, it appeared, meant to Goldwater and Miller, “Let’s cooperate.  You do it my way.”

Apparently, I was one of the preconvention opposition who Senator Goldwater thought he could unify into his campaign.  Although I had let it be widely known that I intended to do all I could for LBJ, Candidate Goldwater sent me an invitation early; in August to come to Washington to have breakfast with him.  He suggested that I really didn’t know him well enough to condemn him and that he felt we might be able to learn something from each other.

Some people will say I should have accepted the invitation.  I did not reject it in hasty anger.  My instinct simply told me immediately that the only way the Senator could sell me his candidacy was if he repudiated the John Birchers, the dirty campaign tactics of Bill Miller who was his running mate, and some of the basic standards he and his crowd had set.  I knew he wasn’t about to do all that simply to get my support.

I resolved that I should not allow myself to get boxed into the image of being a hothead, unwilling, for no good reason, to talk things over.  Consequently, I released the text of my reply to the Goldwater invitation to the press. In that letter I told the Senator I was releasing my reply to the national press.  The letter said in part:

“You say to me that you are interested in breaking bread with me and discussing your views on civil rights.  Senator, on pain of appearing facetious, I must relate to you a rather well-known story regarding the noted musician, Louis Armstrong, who was once asked to explain jazz.  “If you have to ask,” Mr. Armstrong replied, “you wouldn’t understand.”

What are you going to tell me, Senator Goldwater, which you cannot or do not choose to tell the country – or which you could not have told the convention which you controlled so rigidly that it booed Nelson Rockefeller, a distinguished fellow-Republican?

What are you going to say about extremism now?  You called for it and the answer came in the thudding feet and the crashing store windows and the Molotov cocktails and the crack of police bullets and the clubbing of heads and the hate and the violence and the fear which electrified Harlem and Rochester and Jersey.  I am solidly committed to the peaceful, non-violent mass action of the Negro people in pursuit of long-overdue justice.  But I am as much opposed to the extremism of Negro rioters and Negro hoodlums as I am to the sheeted Klan, to the sinister Birchers and to the insidious citizens’ Councils.

If, in view of these questions, which I raise in absolute sincerity and conviction, you still think a meeting between us would be fruitful, I am available at your convenience.”

My letter to the Senator did not receive any response from him.  It did get a response from many people who read it in the newspapers.  The fan mail ran about half and half, with some people giving me a hard time for not accepting Senator Goldwater’s invitation and other declaring that I told him off.

I joined the national headquarters of Republicans for Johnson, based in New York, and accepted speaking assignments wherever I could to tell black and white and mixed audiences how deeply I felt that Goldwater must be overwhelmingly repudiated.  It was during the Johnson-Goldwater campaign that I had one of my confrontations with the articulate, eyebrow-raising William Buckley, owner of National Review magazine and star of the controversial Firing Line television show.

I was booked on a television Conservatism panel which included Bill Buckley, Shelley Winters, and myself.  When my friends and family learned I had consented to participate, they were aghast.

“Send a telegram and say you can’t make it”, one friend told me.  “Bill Buckley will destroy you.  He really knows how to make people look foolish.”

I was glad to receive these warnings.  I didn’t have the slightest intention of backing out, although I already had a healthy respect for Buckley’s craft as debater.  These apprehensions of my friends made me create an advance strategy which I otherwise might have not employed.  I lifted it strictly out of my sports background.  When you know that you are going to face a tough, tricky opponent, you don’t let him get the first lick.  Jump him before he can do anything and stay on him, keeping him on the defensive.  Never let up and you rattle him effectively.  When the show opened up – before Buckley could get into his devastating act of using snide remarks, big words, and the superior manner – I lit right into whim with the charge that many influential Goldwaterites were racists.  Shelley Winters piled in behind me, and Buckley scarcely got a chance to collect his considerable wit.  A man who prides himself on coming out of verbal battle cool, smiling, and victorious, he lost his calm, became snappish and irritated, and, when the show was over and everyone else was shaking hands, got up and strode angrily out of the studio.

It was a small victory, but an important one for me.  There didn’t seem to be much to win in those days on the political scene but I have always believed in fighting, even if only to keep the negative forces back.  That is why I had some measure of satisfaction in helping Johnson win in ’64.