During Black History Month, there are a few obligatory staples and customs that all black kids in America come to expect: the Black History Month assembly where a vivacious and chubby child recites Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” with the cadence of a LisaRaye performance; brief history lessons about Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, MLK and, of course, Rosa Parks; being regaled by rousing renditions of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by your church’s youth choir for the youth ministry’s Black History Month program; and another recitation of “Still I Rise.”
Among these mainstays are classrooms festively bordered with pictures of exceptional and world-renowned African-American professionals and entertainers; people such as Mae C. Jamison, Malcolm X, Duke Ellington, Jackie Robinson and the body that formerly housed the soul of famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
As adulthood goes, many of us have been forced to take a more nuanced and sobering look at some of our Black History Month heroes. Carson, for example, has devolved from a shining example of black academic excellence to an unbelievably inept Donald Trump sycophant who loses his front teeth while eating grits and lies about being held at gunpoint at Popeyes.
Football legend and activist Jim Brown is a former Richard Nixon supporter and recent Trump advocate, and he has a seldom-discussed history of domestic violence. Civil rights leader, organizer and activist Bayard Rustin publicly repudiated the leaders of the Black Campus Movement—a struggle waged by black college students to reform higher education—and implored college officials to “stop capitulating to the stupid demands of Negro students.” You can peer into the life of many a lauded hero and find a few contradictions that are difficult to reconcile.
So in the spirit of realistic approaches to our more complex and notable Negroes, it’s time to broach another sobering aspect of black history: Jackie Robinson was kind of an opp, and he made some political moves that today would elicit a lot of ire.
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Such an assessment may seem blasphemous, as we are used to seeing depictions of Robinson as a brave and brilliantly gifted athlete tasked with the enormous burden of being the first black professional baseball player and ultimately a de facto representative of his race, the symbolic promise of integration and a significant figure in the civil rights movement. Those things are true.
What’s also true is that, well ... his position and visibility were often weaponized by influential white people to publicly demonize and chastise black radicals and assure the white public that such politics did not reflect the will and morals of the black community.
In April 1949, when the Cold War began to intensify, actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson traveled to France to attend the Soviet Union-sponsored Paris Peace Conference. After singing “Joe Hill,” Robeson addressed the audience and offered some impromptu words about the lives of black people in the United States, as he often did. Robeson’s aim was to stress that World War III was not inevitable, as many Americans did not want war with the Soviet Union.
Before he took the stage, however, his speech had somehow already been transcribed and dispatched to the United States by the Associated Press. By the following day, editorialists and politicians had branded Robeson a communist traitor for insinuating that black Americans would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union. Historians would later discover that Robeson had been misquoted, but the damage was almost instantly done, and because he was out of the country, the singer was unaware of the firestorm brewing back home over the speech.
It was the beginning of the end for Robeson, who would soon be declared “the Kremlin’s voice of America” by a witness at hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee. At this hearing, committee Chair John Wood, a Georgia Democrat, summoned baseball great Robinson to Washington to testify before HUAC for the purpose of implicating Robeson as a communist (which he was) and obliterating Robeson’s leadership role in the American black community.
In his testimony, Robinson assured Americans that Robeson did not speak for all blacks with his “silly” personal views. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt noted: “Mr. Robeson does his people great harm in trying to line them up on the Communist side of [the] political picture. Jackie Robinson helps them greatly by his forthright statements.” This was especially hard for Robeson, as he was one of Robinson’s most ardent and vocal advocates and once called for boycotts of Yankee Stadium as a response to baseball’s lack of integration.
In a later statement, Robinson asserted, “The fact that because it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality and lynching, when it happens, doesn’t change the truth of his charges.” Racial discrimination, Robinson said, is not “a creation of Communist imagination.”
But the backlash against Robeson was immediate. His blacklisting and the revocation of his passport rendered him unable to work or travel, and he saw his yearly income drop from more than $150,000 to less than $3,000. Robeson’s name was stricken from the college All-America football teams. Newsreel footage of him was destroyed, recordings were erased and there was a clear effort in the media to avoid any mention of his name.
Robeson refused to be drawn into a personal feud with Robinson because “to do that would be exactly what the other group wants us to do.” In 1960, Robinson would come to endorse HUAC member Richard Nixon in his presidential bid, only to withdraw his support in 1968, furious over Nixon’s courtship of Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who had once led the segregationist Dixiecrats.
Robinson did, however, reprise his role as the Negro defuser, once again using his visibility and influence to be an ardent opponent to the threat of black radicalism in a heated public feud with Malcolm X, and for much of 1963 and part of 1964, Robinson was one of Malcolm X’s most vocal critics, and Malcolm one of his.
Robinson struck the first blow, condemning Malcolm’s separatist views in a newspaper column and igniting a volatile public fallout that even involved threats of physical harm (on Malcolm’s part). Robinson often passionately cited Malcolm and the Nation of Islam as viable threats to the civil rights movement, and Robinson later went on record to condemn riots and any other acts of violence and to publicly criticize Muhammad Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War, claiming, “He’s not willing to show his appreciation to a country that’s giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity.”
Toward the end of his life, Robinson had a chance to reflect on some of his political choices. Regarding his testimony for the HUAC, he wrote in his autobiography:
I would reject such an invitation if offered now … I have grown wiser and closer to the painful truths about America’s destructiveness. ... And I do have increased respect for Paul Robeson who, over the span of twenty years, sacrificed himself, his career and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.
Of course, this was decades after Robeson’s career was ruined; he struggled to make a living and suffered from an onslaught of debilitating depression and health problems. In another gracious showing, Robinson went on to write that Malcolm X’s assassination was a “tragedy of the first order.”
Jackie Robinson made some of these choices because he earnestly believed that he was acting in the best interest of preserving the “progress” that he and other “responsible” civil rights leaders had fought hard to achieve. But in a world where multiple truths can coexist, it can also be said that he was a man who was well aware of the influence he wielded and often used it to assist in delegitimizing black radical voices that both he and white America saw as a threat to the status quo. Reality does not spare our icons.