The great shame for Jackie Robinson was standing up for the right, just messages at just the wrong time. 100 years after his birth it turns out he was, and still is, history’s greatest freedom fighting hero.
“I have been labeled militant, radical, conservative and even Uncle Tom. I have not got of life all I wished or deserved. But who does?”
–Jackie Robinson, 1970
Too many times Jackie Robinson was thrown under the bus for his convictions, mislabeled and slandered as an “Uncle Tom”. An “Uncle Tom” has negative connotations in the African-American vernacular, although ironically the book where the slur derives from, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, does not have the same negative meaning and is, in fact, an anti-slavery novel. Nonetheless, this was a label that followed Jackie Robinson in his plight to integrate a society too broken to uphold a man who was ahead of his time.
In this piece of the Jackie Robinson 100 Legacy Series, we will explore precisely why the baseball legend was #NoUncleTom.
Major League Baseball
While during his professional baseball career he was branded too militant to ever receive the title of an “Uncle Tom”, he was just as often targeted and isolated in his experiences. His tendency to be outspoken about the social issues he endured shaped the dynamic of how he was to be accepted by fans and critics alike, especially as his career progressed and he became more comfortable in the role he played in integration.
Negro League Criticism
One instance that laid the foundation for how he would be perceived by the public was when he openly criticized the conditions surrounding the Negro Leagues. Author David Falkner describes this public criticism as the beginning of Robinson’s isolation in his book Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson From Baseball to Birmingham. “In a scathing…and upsetting piece written in 1948…he criticized the failure of owners to furnish their players with contracts. He attacked low salaries, sloppy umpiring, and the miserable living conditions” (93, Falkner).
Another instance shows how Jackie humanized the realities of professional sports by being his most authentic, true self. This is emphasized and explained through his tumultuous relationship with his only black teammate early in his integration journey, catcher Roy Campanella. “Campanella in particular rubbed him the wrong way” (156, Falkner).
Author Christopher Schultz highlights Robinson’s disdain more directly in his book, Jackie Robinson, An Integrated Life. “At the end of his life, he confided to a journalist his view that Campanella had ‘a little [Uncle] Tom in him’” (105, Schultz).
“What it all boiled down to…was that I was not O’Malley’s kind of Negro.”
Leaving major league baseball left some bitterness in his heart for the sport, and in his later years Dodger’s owner Walter O’Malley’s malice towards Jackie impacted his legacy. What he reflected on about O’Malley really set the tone for his sentiment throughout his post-baseball career. Robinson rejected what he referred to as a “hat in hand” attitude that he felt too many blacks had been subjugated to throughout history, and his outspoken stance on this particular issue certainly impacted the conclusion of his career.
Before Jackie Robinson famously became a Republican, he was registered as an Independent. Oddly enough, it was his connection/conversion to the Republican Party that almost instantaneously came with the “Uncle Tom” label he would come to loathe, but learn to accept. He spent a great deal of his post-retirement life defending his views.
He justified his beliefs by insisting he was in pursuit of an ideal two-party system in the country he loved and served. This came with many complications; none of them were ever as difficult to resolve than the conflict of interest that came with his views concerning the polarizing political figure Richard Nixon.
Not that naïve about Nixon
One of the biggest misconceptions about Jackie Robinson was that he was naïve about President Nixon. However, if you look at his entire record through his communications in a long series of personal letters with Nixon, you will see he was far from naïve. In fact, the influence that he wielded over Nixon and other powerful political figures during that time was astonishing. In the book First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson edited by Michael G. Long, one gets the ultimate examination of what was truly going on in the life and times of the baseball superstar.
Fred Lowey, a prominent New York Republican, phoned Nixon’s secretary Rose Mary Woods on March 30, 1960. The following is a memorandum on the conversation, in which Lowey wanted to stress how “important Jackie was as far as the Negro vote was concerned”. [Woods says]: “To use his terms, Robinson is more or less considered sort of a God up here” (88-89, Long).
President Nixon got with Jackie Robinson’s program, not the other way around.
This was evidenced through the actions that the former pursued in order to appease the latter.
Unfortunately, everyone was fighting for one man’s affections and affirmative endorsement. He became a symbol, and that symbolism caused him to be caught in the trappings of every powerful figure’s selfish convictions.
The bad news was that it caused him to be mislabeled and slandered at every turn.
The good news was that he essentially changed the course of history through the simple act of exercising his genuine convictions.
Was he wrong about Kennedy? Or was he perfectly right about human nature? Every great, powerful man of high and noble position had to answer to Jackie Robinson, bluntly and directly. That was his true power, and it is also where his courage inspired and caused the most change in modern society.
A sharp right turn
A perfect example of how greatly he impacted American political history can be seen where Nixon went wrong in his 1960 campaign. Right before the election, both parties made critical choices, and Robinson played the greatest role:
“While stumping for Nixon, Robinson frequently felt that the campaign ignored or dismissed opportunities to reach out to African American voters…Perhaps his greatest when Nixon refused to telephone Martin Luther King, Jr., who was just beginning to serve a sentence of four months of hard labor at Reidsville State Prison, Georgia. Robinson pleaded with Nixon at that point, but the candidate stated that telephoning the imprisoned civil rights leader would be ‘grandstanding’…By contrast, John Kennedy telephoned Coretta Scott King, and Robert Kennedy intervened with a local judge to secure King’s release” (114, Long).
Politics is a strategy game, and here is where I feel Nixon failed not only his campaign, but also the personal loyalty and support of Jackie Robinson. From here, it was too easy to make the case, or a least pose the question, “was he [Jackie Robinson] wrong about Kennedy?”
It still didn’t matter, however, because no matter what it looked like, Jackie Robinson was always in the lead—meaning, everyone was looking to him for approval.
Uncle Tom? No. If anything, Jackie Robinson was staunchly pro-American. He was a man who was ultimately removed from, yet simultaneously the truest reflection of reality.
His presence forced the truth of every situation he encountered, but none of it was clearer than when the 1960 election crossroads came about.
These men, namely Nixon and Kennedy, were battling for the approval of Jackie Robinson, who they felt represented the sincerest of the American people. They were right in their calculations, and because of this, great progress was made in this country at its most critical standpoint.
He was a faithful loyalist to civil rights. He turned against Nixon over his lack of civil rights legislation, and made him a better man in the process.
In his open letter to Nixon dated May 4, 1963 he wrote:
“When the political battle was over and the returns were in, you will recall that Robert Kennedy attributed his brother’s election to the fact that he had won heavy Negro support in large cities. The Republican National Committee post-scripted that had you made a bold play for the Negro vote, you might have won. You yourself have admitted this…If quoted correctly, you reveal that you have learned nothing from your experience in the last Presidential campaign” (166-167, Long).
No Uncle Tom, instead, he was a challenger who demanded answers.
Like the one in his letter to President Kennedy dated May 5, 1962. In one particularly scathing section subtitled “ANGRY AGAIN” he writes:
“Why don’t you wander off from all those advisors and FBI men; wander off somewhere where you can sit down, all alone—and think about the high cost of race prejudice—just as you thought about the threatened high cost of steel. You know what, Mr. President? We believe that if you do that, you will get angry again. And wouldn’t it be good for you to go down in history….as the President who won the battle against the bigots in this country who are working harder to destroy it from within than a foreign power is working to destroy it from without? Why, Mr. President, why don’t you get angry again?” (146, Long)
This letter in particular received praise nationwide; including praise heaped on him by Martin Luther King Jr., who responded by writing Robinson, “You have made every Negro in America proud…” and Ralph Abernathy, the second most powerful person in the SCLC, who wrote him in a letter “I have always been proud of you…in that article you spoke like a prophet, a scholar and a great American...” (147, Long).
Jackie Robinson’s example is the truest meaning of “leading from behind”.
Robinson was decidedly critical of JFK, but only when he felt the President neglected to match his civil rights objectives. In a letter dated May 7, 1963 he writes, “Despite some fine appointments and a few executive orders, the civil rights platform—which was a major stepping stone for you in your quest for the presidency—has collapsed” (168, Long).
Although stuck in the slow changing landscape of his time, Robinson put the pressure on Presidents like no other figure could. He concluded to Kennedy in the same letter, “The eyes of the world are on America and Americans of both races are looking to you” (169, Long).
JFK’s legacy was lifted by his willingness to listen to Jackie Robinson, and thus one man [Kennedy]’s evolution became a country’s revolution.
The following month, in a letter to Kennedy dated June 12, 1963, he writes:
“Speaking as one person, I can honestly say that Mr. Kennedy has now done everything I hoped he would do. Thank you for emerging as the most forthright President we have ever had and for providing us with the inspired leadership that we so desperately needed. I am more proud than ever of my American heritage” (171-172, Long).
He may have been short sighted in some areas, but he was strong in his convictions and the truth was always nestled close to him.
“Robinson’s belief that he could pursue an opening with a politician like Nixon, an archenemy of liberals, may seem hopelessly naïve today. But in the absence of perfect twenty-twenty hindsight, it is fair to ask if it was really so simple minded for Robinson to draw on what he had already learned from experience“
-David Falkner, Great Time Coming
The Republican Party didn’t leave behind Jackie Robinson as most like to believe. His influence was so impactful that he was actually in front of the Democrat Party. Circumstance had him leading the way in 1960s America and he met that challenge head on.
Slowly yet surely his dream for a balanced, two-party system was being realized.
Unfortunately, although his support did a world of good, once Robinson supported Nixon in his 1960 campaign it was over for him; his reputation suffered greatly.
Chock Full o’Hypocrisy
Jackie’s life choices often struck hypocrisy in the face, as evidenced by the actions of his former employers:
“Both Chock Full o’Nuts and the New York Post put him on leave without pay as he became an active campaign participant. ‘A publicly owned company has no right to take sides in a political campaign,’ declared CEO William Black. The leave would allow Robinson to exercise his individual voice for the campaign’s remainder, claimed Black. Notably, Black (a devoted Democrat) kept Jackie on the payroll while he had campaigned for Humphrey” (121-122, Schultz).
He had to steer his influence like no man in American history has before. His humility diminished his own sense of influence over the world around him.
Robinson long stressed his desire for a two-party system. He wrote, “I admit that the Kennedy ticket had begun to look more attractive. But I have always felt that blacks must be represented in both parties. I was fighting a last-ditch battle to keep the Republicans from becoming completely white” (123, Schultz).
In my opinion, the irony was that the Kennedy ticket was looking more attractive because of him; because of the influence he had on the Kennedy campaign to change its stance on civil rights.
A major problem with Jackie Robinson was that his voice mattered more than anyone else’s.
In reaction to Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr, targeting the NAACP as a “go-slow” organization and standing side by side with radical leader Malcolm X, Robinson urgently responded. “The NAACP issued its response and Robinson offered one as well. But where a press release from the NAACP got lost in the day’s traffic, Robinson’s words brought traffic to a halt” (297, Falkner).
Another problem was that over time he was losing the momentum of his influence, with a lot of people feeling as though his ways were too far in the past to project forward into the future. Seeping into the sixties, his lack of support that he garnered from his baseball career in the fifties showed. “Jackie Robinson, who had single handedly pried open the door to everything that was now taking place, was swept aside as casually as a scrap of old newspaper” (303, Falkner). The moment was too precious for Jackie Robinson to sit back and spectate.
Enter Malcolm X
When it came to the “Uncle Tom” label, a very harsh and difficult opponent for Jackie Robinson to defeat was none other than Malcolm X. As early as the summer of 1963, when Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Malcolm X was also in Washington D.C. Almost hiding in the shadows, he carried with him a grim, pessimistic attitude waiting to pounce and offer his snide commentary. Bruce Llewellyn, a well-connected Harlem businessman, encountered Malcolm in the parking garage of his motel and tells the story of their exchange:
“Malcolm says to us, ‘Where have you guys been?’ We say, ‘We’ve just come back from the march…‘Then he just smiled slightly. Malcolm says to us, ‘You think any of that bullshit is gonna change anything?’” (302, Falkner).
Right side of history, wrong side of Malcolm X
Robinson created a firestorm when he used an open letter to criticize Adam Clayton Powell Jr. for allegedly calling upon African Americans to boycott major civil rights organizations that they did not control. In this March 30 1963 open letter, titled “AN OPEN LETTER TO A FRIEND”, he mentions Malcolm X. After rebuking the two figures in a message written “more in sadness than in anger”, he concludes it by saying: “As I close this letter, Adam, I must confess with a deep sense of sadness that I no longer know who your enemies really are” (165, Long).
This open letter led to the furthest isolation for Jackie Robinson, as this is the time the “Uncle Tom” label now stuck, and would so for the remainder of his life. Some evidence that he was being rejected by the African American population were the angry letters that came piling in to his office at the New York Amsterdam News:
“Still another writer drew a parallel between Robinson’s ‘deep sense of sadness’ and seemingly benevolent white oppression. ‘Were not your actions and words the ‘method’ so often used by white men? ‘Stab them in the back, but do it gentle and be sorry’” (165-166, Long).
Now facing a flurry of critics, Jackie Robinson had to respond to widespread attacks. “Robinson responded especially to the many critics who called for black unity, stating in his April 20 column that “if ‘sticking together’ means you continue to blindly endorse a man simply because he is black—or green—or white—when you truly feel he has been wrong, you can have that kind of sticking together. One of the most precious assets a man has is his right to speak the truth as he sees it” (166, Long).
When Jackie Robinson mentioned Malcolm X’s name in the open letter to Adam Clayton Powell, he had declared war against an entire faction that was waiting for conflict with a man like Robinson.
In a November 30, 1963 letter addressed “Dear Good Friend, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson:” Malcolm X releases barb after barb. “In those days I was one of your many ardent fans; your speed and shifty base running used to hold me spellbound…and, according to the attack you leveled against me and Congressman Powell in your recent column, I must confess that even today you still display the same old ‘speed’, the same ‘cunning’ and ‘shiftiness’…and you are still trying to win ‘The Big Game’ for your White Boss” (182, Long).
All Malcolm had to do was follow the money trail, and his criticism was scathing.
“When Mr. Rickey picked you up from obscurity and made you a Big Leaguer, you never let Mr. Rickey down; and since Mr. Black has given you a well-paying position with Chock-Full-O-Nuts, you have never let Mr. Black down…and now with Mr. Rockefeller promising to make you the Boxing Commissioner of New York State, we know that you can’t afford to let Ole Rocky down…” He goes on to say, “Perhaps, if Nixon had not been such a relatively poorer man, he too would have fared much better with your support” (182-184, Long).
The letter keeps going, tackling the issues that Robinson addressed in his open letter specifically discussing the funeral of the murdered NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi just months earlier. The venom that is in his words is unmistakably potent, and it is apparent that the grievances he releases are sentiments that are shared by a faction, or possibly factions, of a disillusioned community.
Malcolm X falls just short of his well-articulated arguments in the letter’s ironic last three paragraphs:
“If you should ever become as militant in behalf of our oppressed people as Medgar Evers was, the same whites whom you now take to be your friends will be the first to put the bullet or the dagger in your back, just as they put it in the back of Medgar Evers…And I sincerely fear, good Friend Jackie, that if the whites do murder you, you are still gullible enough to die thinking they are still your white friends, and that the dagger in your back is only an accident! Whereas if whites were to murder me for the religious philosophy that I represent and stand for, I would die KNOWING that it was at the hands of OPEN ENEMIES OF TRUTH AND JUSTICE!” (186, Long).
No matter what the then present day showed, historically Jackie Robinson won with his response to critics, especially when it came to matters of his integrity.
Highlights from his debate with Malcolm X
Recognizing that he may have finally met his match, he reserved a sharp opening statement for Malcolm X in his December 14, 1963 response:
“Coming from you, an attack is a tribute.”
He stayed clear and articulate.
“Personally, I reject your racist views. I reject your dream of a separate state. I believe that many Americans, black and white, are committed to fighting for those freedoms for which Medgar Evers, William Moore, the Birmingham children and President John F. Kennedy died.”
He was unrelenting in his poise.
“America is not perfect, by a long shot, but I happen to like it here and will do all I can to help make it the kind of place where my children and theirs can live in dignity.”
Robinson did have a real criticism to make.
“Malcolm, he said, had asserted that ‘Negroes…are dying for freedom to please the white man. No, we feel our stake in America is worth fighting for’” (309, Falkner).
Most of all, he maintained a respectful tone.
“The fact that I am supporting him does not mean you should. Rest assured, I am not doing so in the hope that you will come aboard…I hate to think of where we would be if we followed your leadership. Strictly in my personal opinion, it is a sick leadership which should rightfully be rejected by the vast majority of Americans” (186-188, Long).
The conflict between him and Malcolm became so widespread in the black community that it no longer mattered who won. “This ‘debate’ between two powerful African-American voices was followed avidly in the black press, while it was virtually ignored in the white media…seemed to further isolate [Robinson] at a time when he had to have felt more uncertain about where he was going, what he was doing, and how and where he fit in” (309-310, Falkner).
Unfortunately it didn’t matter what Jackie Robinson said, the damage was done.
“Malcolm’s blast made it impossible for Rockefeller to appoint Robinson to any kind of job” (309, Falkner).
But, as history will remember, he won through his self-perseverance upholding his legacy. The most important part is the fact that he made peace with Malcolm; that will always be the most enduring aspect of their conflict.
Proof of his effectiveness at promoting peace even with his “enemies” was when Republican Presidential Nominee Barry Goldwater wanted to be on his good terms, even after Robinson publicly chastised him. “Goldwater was upset about some especially harsh comments that Robinson had made about him in his column. Goldwater wanted to fly up to New York to meet with him. Would that be all right?...‘But here it was, Goldwater making plans to come all the way up to New York just to meet with Jack…’” (313, Falkner)
Hate White Black Mail
Robinson had long received hate mail and serious death threats from his time integrating baseball, beginning in the early 50s. He was adjusted to the tempers of his bigoted followers. But it wasn’t until the early 1960s that he started getting hate mail from members of his own race, for matters that were beyond him. One letter signed, “The ‘Hate White’ Movement dated July 18, 1962 read, among other terrible remarks, “You have banished yourself from the Black Race…Uncle Toms do not belong in our ranks…” (149, Long)
Jackie Robinson was a very complex man trying to tackle the most complicated issues of his time. As a result, he was easy to target and even easier to label.
Uncle Tom? No way, as evidenced by his attitudes towards the Black Panther Party. To the surprise of many, he viewed the radical group in the most sympathetic terms.
The Black Power Movement wasn’t lost on him. “Yet at this point Robinson found common cause with one of the most radical elements of the entire movement, the Black Panther Party” (330, Falkner).
Towards the twilight years of his life, he started to sense some strategy that he could get behind, although always cautiously critical of what he saw as wrong.
He admired their approach: “Instead of taking to the streets to retaliate, these young brothers took their complaint to City Hall where one of the Black Panther leaders, David Brothers, bared his mutilated back to give mute and horrible proof of the kind of brutality which would be the accepted thing under the ‘law and order’ philosophy of Richard Nixon…”(330, Falkner).
Alton Marshall was Rockefeller’s chief of staff, serving as an alter ego for his boss, but had his own view on things:
“Marshall believed that Robinson was passionately interested in ideas but that he wasn’t an analytical thinker…He was not endorsing Nike shoes and saying ‘Oh, by the way, let’s do something about race.’ The significance was that he wanted to do whatever he could to be a nurse to whatever activities there were” (320, Falkner).
“He continued to enjoy his strolls down 125th Street, but the fire directed at him for being an ‘Uncle Tom’ for being Rockefeller’s ‘house Negro’ became increasingly intense” (321, Falkner).
“Late in life, he defended his role in the Rockefeller administration as not simply serving the status quo: ‘I got together so-called militants and offered to do what I could to communicate their beefs to the governor, to housing people and to industry. I felt the job was worthwhile and that I had made some progress for the black cause while I was at it.’
Increasingly though, jeers of ‘house Negro’ were hurled in his direction…He even received death threats from Black Power detractors…On the front steps of his Freedom National Bank in August 1968, where he publicly endorsed Humphrey, he was greeted with mostly warm applause. The major event was also interrupted, however, by shouts of ‘Uncle Tom!’ from the Harlem crowd” (142-143, Schultz).
Was Jackie Robinson an Uncle Tom? You and I don’t get to decide. This answer will be buried with Jackie Robinson as his legacy represents the ultimate symbol of freedom of speech.
“I like public approval as well as anyone else. But, if I have to be misunderstood and misrepresented because I follow my convictions and speak my mind, then so be it…In the long run, I’m the guy I have to live with.”
Four time All-American, WNBA Champion, Edutainer and Coach