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Happy 100th Birthday to Jackie Robinson, Athlete-Activist and Breaker of the MLB Color Line

By Howard Bryant

Jackie Robinson

We wouldn’t have Colin Kaepernick without Jackie Robinson. Long before Kaepernick bore the backlash of taking a knee, most of the public in Robinson’s time wanted him to “shut up and play,” too. The field, an escape haven for many white sports fans, was no place for Black athletes to speak out for their civil rights. Robinson was one of the master builders of the Heritage, the legacy of the politically-engaged Black athlete. Kaepernick stands as one of its most visible inheritors. In honor of Robinson’s hundredth birthday, let’s take a closer at this complex figure in these passages from Howard Bryant’s The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.


For black men, sports was not as promising an employment opportunity as it appeared. Their bodies were valuable, but beyond playing, chances to coach, evaluate personnel, or run or own teams were as remote as they were in the non-sports world. And as for the Heritage, Jackie Robinson had created the template of the black political athlete, but it was still a game, and employees were still just ballplayers, with plenty of visibility but not nearly enough security (the million-dollar, guaranteed contract was a decade and a half away), so the tolerance for speaking out about social issues was low. Even during the obvious inequality of the Jim Crow era, the white mainstream was still confounded by the black demand for equality. Some whites admired Robinson. Many more simply admired his playing, and most of the public had forgotten he had done the government the solid of testifying against Paul Robeson and wanted him to shut up about politics and the constant demands of black people (“What do they want now?”). This prompted resentment from whites and wariness from the black establishment: pull back; don’t rock the boat, lest we risk everything being taken away.

By 1964, Robinson had already been retired nearly a decade. Two years earlier, he had been enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was a living legend. Robinson’s face was heading for the immortality of an American stamp, with streets and schools, scholarships and highways, to be named after him.

Yet to the young people who were emerging as the activists of the era, Jackie Robinson was a fossil, too old, too establishment to reach anyone under the age of forty. He was their parents’ age, and no self-respecting radical listened to his parents. In retirement, though, Robinson was more radical than he’d been as a player, all of which burnished the future legend, but at that time, Robinson was seen as an out-of-step old man. He was a Nixon supporter during the 1960 presidential election and remained a moderate Republican for the rest of his life. Younger blacks thought the times had passed him by, even as Robinson traveled to the Deep South to stand with the civil rights movement, marching side by side with Martin Luther King Jr., registering people to vote, showing his face. Robinson also never quite lived down his role in the House of Un-American Activities Committee’s takedown of Paul Robeson, an infamous moment Malcolm X never let him forget in their public war of words. By today’s mild standards of dissent, Robinson sounds like Malcolm X, but at the time, Malcolm X referred to Jackie Robinson, who carried America on his shoulders until it broke him, as an Uncle Tom. Robinson already knew what America’s African American youth thought of him, and Malcolm was unrelenting in his criticism of Jackie’s moderation: “They see me in a suit and tie and they look at my white hair and they’re too young to remember what I did, or they don’t care. I began to talk and some shouted ‘Oreo.’ You know, the cookie that’s black outside and white underneath.”


While Robinson’s influence may not have made an imprint on younger activists, it couldn’t be denied that it solidified the Heritage for years to come.


The Robinson influence on the baseball traditions of the Heritage led to a tightly knit network of African American players that would span generations, both leagues, and the entire country. “We had to take care of each other,” former Major League Baseball manager and retired player Dusty Baker said. “There weren’t that many of us. You knew the game didn’t always want you. You had to pass on what you knew, like, prepare the ones that were coming. That was your responsibility.”

The spirit of activism defined sports in the 1960s. In 1964, NBA players—the league of Russell and Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor—nearly boycotted the All-Star Game over the pension policy. In 1965, after being treated with racial hostility in New Orleans, black AFL players boycotted the game. In 1966, Major League Baseball players hired labor negotiator Marvin Miller and built the most powerful union in the history of professional sports, a model for athletes coming to understand their rising power in the workforce. The 1968 Olympics were seismic and could have been more so if the athletes had decided to push further and not gone to Mexico City. In 1969, Curt Flood took the first step toward defying baseball at the Supreme Court when he refused to be traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia, challenging the reserve clause, baseball rules that teams owned players for life. Along with artists in the fast-growing music industry, black athletes were the most visible black professionals in the world. The public wanted them to be grateful for their talent, but athletes didn’t just have talent; they had power. If the best prospect for black America was not going to be education but the lottery ticket of sports, body over brain, then the most physically gifted African Americans were bound to interrupt America’s fun and games when the times demanded their political participation. This was the Heritage. It was the special inheritance of the black athlete. It belonged to them now, even if it was a burden the next several generations of athletes did not always seem to want.

For all the gauzy tributes and reflections of the 1960s, there was no mistaking a central fact: the Heritage and all of its political strains, from the conservative push of moderate integration to radical wings of the movement, were never welcome by the suits who signed the checks or the executives who picked the talent. Jim Brown told his biographer Dave Zirin that he considered Paul Robeson his “number-one guy, a great man . . . who was doing it, fighting, for decades before anyone knew Dr. King.” Robinson was a Republican, an integrationist, but never shied from asserting his rights.


About the Author 

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for and ESPN the Magazine and has served as the sports correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday since 2006. He is the author of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry AaronJuicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League BaseballShut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston; and the three-book Legends sports series for middle-grade readers. A two-time Casey Award winner (2003, 2011) for best baseball book of the year, Bryant was also a 2003 finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research Seymour Medal. In 2016, he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and received the 2016 Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter at @hbryant42 and visit his website.