Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Jackie Robinson would be condemning police terror and white America were he alive today

Read his words, and see a side of Jackie Robinson that MLB doesn’t talk about.
Read his words, and see a side of Jackie Robinson that MLB doesn’t talk about.
Image: AP

Yesterday was April 15th, Jackie Robinson Day, baseball’s annual event of empty tributes to cover up the fact that 90 percent of teams refuse to hire Black or Hispanic executives or managers despite Jackie’s dying wishes.

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In other news, American police are going buck wild. It seems these two events should be connected.

Kavitha Davidson argues in The Athletic. “It’s time for MLB to tell the truth about Robinson”, “stop sanitizing the man” and “be honest about his activism”.

Ok. Let’s do it: the hidden, more radical side of Jackie Robinson, who has been one of sports’ greatest voices against police terror — but Major League Baseball won’t tell you that. Robinson was a fierce civil rights activist long after his playing career, and by the late 1960s to his death in 1972, he became more disillusioned with American progress and more pointed in his language toward the role of “white America.”

By 1968, Jackie Robinson could be found denouncing “law and order” rhetoric and policies championed by white Americans, and Richard Nixon, a man he once temporarily supported for president back in 1960.

“I think most white Americans have their head in the sand when it comes to race relations,” he says via Ken Burns’ 2016 documentary. “White America is saying, ‘law and order.’ But in their hearts, law and order simply means holding Black men down”.

At a time where Derek Chauvin is currently on trial for killing George Floyd after holding him down for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, Robinson’s sentiment couldn’t be more poignant and relevant.

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Robinson’s “law and order’ quote could most obviously be applied to the Nixon-inspired racist rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidency the past four years. While the white bigotry Trump emboldened and empowered will live far past the life of his presidency, America’s “law and order” policing and mass incarceration policies have been a mutual bi-partisan affair. Trump might be out of office, but police terror hasn’t skipped a beat.

Here is a sampling of other policing stories since the beginning of the Chauvin trial.

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On Sunday, a new set of protests erupted across cities after the inexplicable police killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Minneapolis by Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter, who wanted to arrest him over petty debts. Yesterday, the video was released of Adam Toledo being executed by a Chicago cop while raising his hands. In the days in between, two North Carolina officers repeatedly punched a Black man as he fell to the ground; a 74-year-old grandmother is suing three Oklahoma City cops for breaking her arm; and the Kenosha cop who shot Jacob Blake in the back returned to active duty. That’s just this week.

Last week, two D.C. residents were both shot in the back and killed by an off-duty Pentagon officer; and disturbing video emerged of a Black Army Lieutenant pepper-sprayed and humiliated by a maniacal power-tripping cop. The prior week three white St. Louis officers were found not guilty of beating a Black undercover cop mixed in with other beaten protesters. Yup, Black military and Black cops can get whooped, too.

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Most disgusting is how many cases indict the entire departments as a bunch of soulless thug criminals.

Prior to their beatings, the St. Louis officers bragged they’d “whoop some ass”. One officer wrote. “It’s going to be fun beating the hell out of [them] once the sun goes down and nobody can tell us apart … Just F—- people up.” After the beatings, a bunch of cops taunted the crowd by chanting “Whose Streets, Our Streets!”.

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After killing Daunte Wright, the Brooklyn Center Police Dept. proudly revelled in his death raising a Thin Blue Line flag to commemorate the occasion.

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How bad is it? Even far right-wing Evangelical Pat Robertson is now lashing out against police.

It’s not hard to guess where Jackie Robinson would land on police terror today, since he was a consistent critic in his day.

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As a young man, Robinson experienced police terror with a “gun-barrel pressed into the pit of my stomach”, and while still playing he spoke about police brutality to Congress; and as an older activist, he routinely confronted police brutality through regular marches, speeches, letters and newspapers, writing 330 columns for The Amsterdam News from 1962-1968.

In one column, he wrote “Police who act like the Gestapo and public officials who do nothing about it ought to be slapped down.” In a 1964 column titled “Watch that Brutality,” Robinson notede, “I think our Police Commissioner must be warned that police brutality will not be tolerated by the Negro and Puerto Rican people of New York City. There has been too much of it and unless it is seriously curtailed, there can be serious and crucial times ahead for the city.”

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The prescient column came one month before the Ferguson, Mo. of its day – the 1964 Harlem Uprising, ignited by the police murder of James Powell, an unarmed Black 15-year-old.

But wouldn’t Robinson be appalled at all the civil unrest? Nah. In September 1964, he wrote:

“How the world can wonder at riots in Harlem when American justice, down-South and up-South continues to countenance complete forgiveness of murders of the Negro people, it is difficult to understand.”

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Then and now. It seems Jackie prioritized people over property.

By 1968, Robinson was publicly defending the New York City Black Panthers’ right to self-defense after they were attacked at a courthouse by a mob of mostly off-duty police officers. Robinson would call out “improper reporting,” and the “violent” and “trigger-happy” police. “They are seeking peace,” Robinson said. “The Black Panthers seek self-determination, protection of the Black community, decent housing and employment, and express opposition to police abuse.”

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“MLB should honor his radical activism, too,” says the L.A. Times’ Michael Long, in a wonderful piece that details Robinson’s 1968 public support of the Panthers.

What would Jackie Robinson think about white America’s views today?

In a March 2021 USA Today poll, nearly two-thirds of Black Americans, 64 percent, said they viewed Floyd’s death as murder, but only 28 precent of white people felt the same. White Americans are more likely to describe it instead as the police officer’s “negligence” — 33 percent compared with 16 percent of Black respondents.

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As for Trump, his departure has not slowed down police terror at all, or proposed significant structural responses.

While the proposed George Floyd Policing Act contains some no-brainer reforms, there is a disconnect between Washington politicians and protesters in the streets who see an institution so corrupt and criminal that it is inherently beyond reform.

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A robust Defund the Police activist movement has produced some initial local successes. Many college campuses have ended their police contracts. The city of Austin is cutting its police dept. and reallocating funds to services for the unhoused. Seattle is also cutting its police budget, and will let the community decide where the money should go.

However, President Biden and many Democrats are also on record saying they won’t cut police budgets. While many worry that it doesn’t currently poll well, Nathalie Baptiste of Mother Jones reminds us that racial justice issues never do, and it doesn’t matter. Nothing in the 1960’s civil rights movement polled well at first. You get what you fight for.

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Today’s grassroots activist frustration of both parties for delivering substantive policing change might be a good place to start to better understand why Jackie Robinson initially backed Richard Nixon for President in 1960, after campaigning in those primaries for Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey. In his autobiography; “I Never Had It Made” he explains:

“I do not consider my decision to back Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy for the Presidency in 1960 one of my finer ones. It was a sincere one, however, at the time. The Richard Nixon I met back in 1960 bore no resemblance to the Richard Nixon as President ... When I first met him, he had just returned from a trip around the world, and he came back saying that America would lose the confidence and trust of the darker nations if she didn’t clear her own backyard of racial prejudice. Mr. Nixon made these statements for the television cameras for all the world to hear.”

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Robinson was simultaneously turned off by his meeting with Kennedy who “knew little or nothing about Black problems and sensibilities,” and w,as put off by JFK’s open courting of hardline segregationists for endorsements.

Robinson’s attitude toward Nixon would soon change and he said Nixon “is capable of deep personal goodwill and grace, particularly if he believes you can be useful to his goals. His instincts are flawless.”

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Nixon had been friends with Robinson since 1952, and in their first meeting, Nixon “recounted in granular detail an unusual play Robinson was involved in during a 1939 football contest between UCLA and the University of Oregon.”

Robinson’s Republican political alliances were often preceded by friendships, and his own hopes in leveraging his own influence with them to advance civil rights, and the Democratic Party also did very little until the mass mobilization and uprisings throughout the 1960s forced its hand.

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Later in 1960, Robinson would begin to sour on Nixon after Nixon refused his desperate urges to issue a show of support to help release Martin Luther King from jail, as his life was in danger. As it turns out, JFK would help get King’s release.

Robinson was also unimpressed with President Kennedy. On May 7, 1963, he wrote a letter admonishing JFK that his “civil rights platform has collapsed” demanding federal intervention into Birmingham which has become “a police state:

“Moderation and gradualism, as far as civil rights are concerned, are antique words. The revolution that is taking place in this country cannot be squelched by police dogs or high-power hoses.”

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Does this sound like the Jackie Robinson you were taught about?

By 1968, appearing on the NBC program Searchlight, Robinson accused Nixon of “prostituting himself to the bigots in the South” and declared, “I’m a Black man first, an American second, and then I will support a political party third,” according to Jeff English’s chapter in the new book edited by SABR entitled, Jackie: Perspectives on 42.

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The same political principle applied to racial justice activists

While Robinson had regularly marched and organized with Dr. King, he did not share MLK’s view of non-violence as a blanket ideology, but only as a situational strategy — one which he employed at great emotional cost in 1947 in agreeing not to fight back against the daily abuse he received as Black ballplayer in the major leagues.

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Much has been written about Robinson’s disagreements with more radical Black leaders, but far less about him lending his principled and popular public support for those more marginalized, whether it be the NYC Black Panthers, or athletes like Tommie Smith/John Carlos and Curt Flood who were all ostracized by the sports world for taking career-ending stands against oppression.

Robinson was his own man, beholden to no one who couldn’t be stuffed into simplistic boxes.

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If Jackie Robinson were alive today, he’d be railing against police terror while calling out Trump last year, and railing against Biden this year. History also suggests he would be Colin Kaepernick’s No. 1 advocate.

As Davison wrote in The Athletic:

“To that end, a truly meaningful gesture would be for MLB to stop holding police appreciation nights in ballparks, as we have yet to see any true widespread accountability for the killing of unarmed citizens at the hands of cops.”

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Now that’s a start! What do you say Commissioner Manfred?

Michael Long argues if MLB is serious about honoring Robinson, it would also include denouncing police brutality, and demanding police reforms.

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What would Jackie Robinson say about policing and “white America” this week?

He’d say something like his September 1964 column:

“Those who preside over those who put into practice such ‘justice’ are as guilty of inciting violence and murder as anyone in the land. For, ignore it if you like, the truth is that the time will come when the Negro, all over this country, will finally find his patience worn so thin that he will have no choice but to rise up and retaliate. None of us want to see that day.”

NFL owners are still colluding against Colin Kaepernick. Collusion is still a crime. My sportswriting will not be complicit in criminal activity.