On a Saturday evening in February of 1966, over a thousand mostly white Republican men and women crowded into a Cleveland hotel banquet hall, eager to hear Jackie Robinson’s opening keynote for the annual Ohio Republican Conference. The baseball icon-turned-political activist did not disappoint.
“I am not what is known as a good Republican,” Robinson declared upon taking the stage. “I am certainly not a safe Republican. I am weary of the black man going hat in hand, shoulders hunched and knee pads worn, to ‘Uncle Tom’ to the enemies of our progress.”
In the context of today’s political chaos, Jackie Robinson’s militant pronouncements feel alien, especially when one surveys the racial wreckage of the modern GOP. The Republican Party’s approach to race right now can best be described as anarchy, as Donald Trump gleefully turns dog-whistle politics into full-blown nuclear alarm.
As party leaders scramble to address the Trump invasion, they’ve sidestepped accountability for the GOP’s role in creating the current climate. Largely absent in all of this are the voices of the party’s racial minorities. A few scattered examples have emerged as critiques of both Trump and the GOP at large, but none have done it with the comprehensive ferocity that rivals that of Jackie Robinson.
For years, conservatives have tried to claim the political legacy of Robinson without acknowledging his actual complicated “militant” politics. Although he campaigned as an independent for Richard Nixon in 1960, later changing his affiliation to Republican, and forged a close working relationship with New York Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Robinson was always cagey about his GOP identification.
“I’m a black man first,” he once calmly stated, while appearing on a 1968 television program, “an American second, and then I will support a political party—third.”
Like the vast majority of black Republicans in 1964, Robinson vehemently opposed Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. That year, he chaired a chapter of “Republicans for Johnson” and likened black Goldwater supporters to racial sellouts and “Uncle Toms.” But his rejection of Goldwater did not affect his affiliation—in fact, he remained a Republican, and in July 1964 he helped found the National Negro Republican Assembly, a national black Republican protest organization that grew out of the nightmarish experience of black Republicans at the 1964 Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.
Arriving at the convention, Republicans were met by the thunderous chants of 50,000 anti-Goldwater protesters, including members of the Congress of Racial Equality, who wore their sharpest funeral attire, carried wooden caskets and held signs reading “Republican Party—Born 1860, Died 1964.” After facing an unyielding assault of taunts, exclusions, racial slurs and physical attacks by white Republicans on the convention floor, all but one of the black GOP delegates, including Robinson, found themselves marching alongside the protesters.
After huddling in a war room at the convention hotel, the demoralized group of black delegates did something unusual for a group of Republicans: They publicly denounced their party’s presidential nominee as racist, called the party’s platform discriminatory and united across ideological lines to create the NNRA, vowing to use the organization to defeat the segment of the GOP that was “determined to establish a lily-white Republican Party.”
Robinson and members of the NNRA remained within the Republican Party in 1964 for three reasons: First, black Republicans—even in 1964—were still more conservative than their Democratic Party brethren. Second, members held fast to a belief in two-party competition, believing that if black voters left the GOP and went to the Democratic Party, one party would eventually take African Americans for granted, while the other would ignore them. Third, black Republicans argued that leaving the GOP would be an act of self-silencing, which would compound the effects of Republican extremism. In essence, NNRA members saw themselves as the conscience of the GOP, keeping the party painfully honest on issues of race and civil rights.
The NNRA became an outspoken civil rights group within the Republican Party. Robinson and the other members envisioned the organization as a “thorn in the flesh” of the GOP—a constant irritant to transform the character of the party and strike at the “heart of white racism.” Today, the notion of black Republican militancy may seem peculiar, but within the context of the Republican Party, Jackie Robinson and the NNRA were indeed militant. African Americans, Robinson once wrote, needed a “riot of black unity” to show white institutions “that we can create a black power structure and that we do not intend to fight this battle as individuals or small groups, but as one people.”
Throughout the 1960s, the group repeatedly rejected white Republican attempts to influence the direction of the organization, chafing at the idea of wearing the “collar of an outside force.” Similarly, for Robinson and the members of the NNRA, one thing remained constant: The problem lay not with African Americans but with the Republican Party itself.
Though Barry Goldwater was the spur for the creation of the organization, members were less interested in him as an individual than with the lingering effects of his right-wing brand of conservatism. Writing about the significance of the NNRA only one day after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, Robinson warned that the “conservative troops which marched behind Barry Goldwater” were flourishing and were still on “active duty.”
Politically, this meant that the NNRA only endorsed candidates with positive civil rights records and agendas, and forcefully repudiated those who stood to gain from racial backlash and resentment. In this regard, the brunt of Robinson’s fury was directed at Ronald Reagan, a figure he viewed as the ideological heir to Goldwater and the embodiment of a new “radical right and the lunatic fringe” of the GOP.
A crucial part of this anger stemmed from Reagan’s steadfast rejection of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—a vital piece of legislation that outlawed discrimination and ensured protection of minority groups by the federal government. Reagan, like Goldwater before him, claimed to believe in equality but argued that the law was unconstitutional, on “principled grounds.”
But for African Americans, especially those in the South, this interpretation of conservatism was anything but principled. Not only did it deny them equal citizenship under the law, but it also denied them the necessary protection of the federal government to secure their right to equality. In short, as second-class citizens, African Americans, including black Republicans, rejected the notion that the protection of their basic rights was unconstitutional, interpreting any opinion that suggested otherwise as fundamentally racist.
In 1966 during a stop on the politician’s campaign for governor of California, the NNRA pushed Reagan to his breaking point. At an NNRA-arranged event in Los Angeles, members hostilely and aggressively questioned the former actor on his commitment to civil rights, demanded to know what he would do to ensure racial equality while in office, took targeted jabs at his proposals, and insinuated that he was a dangerous ideologue.
The rapid-fire accusations were too much for Reagan to take. Rocketing to his feet and slamming his note cards to the floor, the flush-faced politician shouted at his black audience that he resented their accusations of bigotry. Clenching his fists and muttering to himself, a teary-eyed Reagan stormed out of the room, flanked by his bewildered campaign aides.
The NNRA would go on to inspire the creation of a number of other black Republican organizations, but none would maintain the level of independence, militancy or commitment to racial equality of the NNRA. In fact, the group eventually imploded in 1968 under the weight of its own militancy and ideological infighting, dissolving rapidly after the organization’s standard-bearer, Robinson, denounced the Republican Party and changed his political affiliation from Republican to independent when Nixon became the GOP’s presidential nominee.
Nixon was once Robinson’s candidate of choice, but his alliance with Strom Thurmond, and several other racial betrayals, were simply too much for Robinson to stomach. “I am militantly and aggressively opposed to Richard Nixon,” Robinson wrote in an August 1968 column in which he accused the politician of “selling his soul” to the former Southern segregationist Democrat-turned-Republican Thurmond.
How could anyone, of any race, argued Robinson, trust a man who “would aspire to the White House by doing business with bigotry?” As he concluded in a 1968 personal letter (to Goldwater, no less), he wrote, “Picture yourself a black man, standing before your television set hearing Strom Thurmond telling the country of his veto powers over the vice presidential choice.”
Robinson continued, “I condemn riots and violence as vigorously as does Nixon or you, but my emphasis is on law and justice. For without the presence of justice, order is placed in jeopardy.” Nixon had “impressed” Robinson in 1960, but during the 1968 election, Robinson said that Nixon’s dealings with Thurmond “made a kingmaker out of the former Democrat.” Robinson’s stance was clear: “Because I am proud of my blackness and the progress we have made, I refuse to support this ticket.”
Leah Wright Rigueur is an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power. Her research and commentary have been featured on PBS, CNN, CBS, NPR, MSNBC and the Washington Post. Follow Wright Rigueur on Twitter and at her website.