Jackie Robinson Was More Than a Baseball Player

David Naze

Jackie Robinson is popularly portrayed as a mainstream figure who broke baseball’s color line by quietly enduring racist abuse. But he was much more a lifelong activist and defiant crusader for civil rights.

A portrait of Jackie Robinson in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, circa 1945. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Interview by
Michael Arria

Last month, Major League Baseball (MLB) celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, an annual event that the league debuted in 2004. Every April 15, each player wears Robinson’s number, 42, to honor the day he broke the baseball’s color barrier in 1947.

For years, many have embraced an oversimplified image of Robinson as a stoic man who endured racist abuse with grace and dignity. In his book, Reclaiming 42: Public Memory and the Reframing of Jackie Robinson’s Radical Legacy, David Naze aims to fill in the politics scrubbed from this narrative while breaking down the sanitized version of Robinson that has permeated the public memory. What emerges is a complex, defiant figure, as opposed to a simplistic symbol of frictionless racial progress. “Often we forget the details of one person’s legacy, either because of the passage of time or because we were never really taught about those details in the first place,” Naze writes.

A lifelong activist, Robinson participated in the World War II–era “Double V” campaign — the effort among black Americans to wage a war against fascism abroad and racism at home — refusing to move to the back of an Army bus in 1944. After his retirement from baseball in 1957, Robinson was a fixture at civil rights demonstrations and, along with Martin Luther King Jr, was named an honorary chairmen of the Youth March for Integrated Schools in Washington, DC, the following year.

When Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, King praised him in a letter: “You have made every Negro in America proud through your baseball prowess and your inflexible demand for equal opportunity for all.” King further lauded him in a newspaper column:

Back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable, [Robinson] underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the Freedom Rides.

Robinson even directed the money from his Hall of Fame dinner to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s voter registration project.

Jacobin contributor Michael Arria spoke to Naze about the standard story of Robinson, the political schisms among black Americans during the civil rights era, and what can be done to recover Robinson’s multifaceted legacy.

Michael Arria

Before we get to the mythmaking, I wanted to talk about the parts of Robinson’s legacy that are generally scrubbed from the narrative. His story is often presented in an apolitical way, and sometimes he’s even presented as a conservative because he agreed to testify in 1949 before the red-baiting House Committee on Un-American Activities (he used the speech to decry Jim Crow) and his brief flirtation with Richard Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign (he distrusted John F. Kennedy on civil rights).

David Naze

When I came to this subject about twenty years ago, my understanding of Robinson was the mainstream narrative. I have come to argue it’s very limited — important and significant historically, but narrow in terms of how we think about Robinson’s legacy.

The story we hear is that he was the first black baseball player in Major League Baseball and that he broke the color barrier in 1947. He’s largely remembered as a baseball player. However, his legacy and his impact go far beyond baseball. Jackie Robinson was a forerunner to the modern American civil rights movement. He was doing a lot of significant things prior to 1947, when he was in the army. Then he comes to baseball and breaks the color barrier.

Jackie Robinson in his military uniform, during a visit to his Pasadena, California, family home, circa 1943. (LOOK Magazine / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

We also don’t really remember him as a postbaseball figure. What he did from 1957 to his death in 1972 gets eliminated from his legacy. He was a strong political advocate. He contributed immensely to the civil rights movement. This included writing a regular column in the New York Amsterdam News, in which he and Malcolm X famously exchanged heated sentiments about which direction the black community should be headed.

He wrote extensive and prolific civil rights letters to allies, adversaries, politicians, and so on. When he served as an executive at Chock Full o’Nuts, he included in his contract that he could work as extensively as he wanted on civil rights efforts.

Michael Arria

Can you talk about this image of him as a gentle, quiet hero who gracefully endured racist barbs?

David Naze

Everything you’re asking about connects to the whitewashing of his legacy, and I think the primary example of that whitewashing is Major League Baseball’s decision to create Jackie Robinson Day in 2004, which it observes every year on April 15.

On the one hand, it’s great. Of course he deserves to be recognized. But every year it’s the same rerun of Major League Baseball holding itself up as the tolerator of racial integration. I refer to Robinson’s “radical legacy” because I believe, in the context of 1947 and the stuff he was doing for the last twenty-five years of his life, he was a radical by the strictest definition of the term. He was doing things outside the mainstream.

Malcolm X certainly saw him as an adversary during that time, especially after white America began holding Robinson up as someone they could root for or tolerate because he was an “exceptional Negro” — he represented an exception to what mainstream white society saw as a problematic community. African Americans were split. Some people thought he threw Paul Robeson under the bus, and Paul Robeson broke so many different barriers before Robinson.

Jackie Robinson with his son David during the March on Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. (US Information Agency / Wikimedia Commons)

He was the most popular, renowned black figure at the time, and then in 1949 Robinson testifies for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). I think his participation is misconstrued, but many white Americans approved of his actions and thought, “Look, he’s even willing to speak out against members of his own community.” It fit a neat, uncomplicated narrative: a black figure who has given us a reason to root for him and not given us any reason to root against him.

So, the MLB story is a narrative about the tolerator. The story can be, “See? We’re tolerant, we’re accepting. We’re not bigots.” And that’s where the focus is. But we don’t ask what Jackie Robinson thought of all that, because if we did, it would complicate the narrative and make it more difficult for Major League Baseball to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day in the way that it does.

Michael Arria

I think many younger people might derive their perception of Robinson from the 2013 film 42, starring the late Chadwick Boseman. That movie is a decade old now, but what did you make of it when it came out?

David Naze

When that movie came out, I wrote a review for a local media outlet and referred to it as a double in the gap. It wasn’t a home run. It was successful in holding up a hero and a really important figure. I don’t think it was doing anything to complicate the narrative we’ve been discussing. It was designed as a feel-good movie. I’m not trying to be hypercritical; I think it was well done, but it was predictable.

Jackie Robinson with the Kansas City Monarchs (Negro Leagues) before a game, circa 1945. (Kansas City Call / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

I think it missed an opportunity to create some space for true democratic dissent and productive dialogue. It’s a good example of the Disney-fication of complicated legacies on the screen.

If you go to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, too, you’re going to see Robinson a lot, but it follows the same script that most mainstream platforms do. It sees baseball as a meritocracy where you belong if you can play well.

It pales in comparison to something like the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City. The museum’s aim is to bring to light as many different narratives as possible, regardless of how complicated they are, and Robinson is just one of those narratives. They do a great job covering how black Americans were split over the disintegration of the Negro Leagues.

A significant portion saw something that they had created out of necessity on their own going away. So there was celebration on one hand, but they also saw that a thriving league was about to go away.

Michael Arria

What’s something Major League Baseball could do to promote Robinson’s true legacy?

David Naze

One of the things Major League Baseball did as part of Jackie Robinson Day was to retire his number throughout all of baseball. Anyone who was wearing number 42 at the time was grandfathered in and allowed to continue wearing it, but the jersey number would never be given out again. Then on Jackie Robinson Day, every player wears 42.

I think that’s a unique and well-intentioned initiative, but I believe they should unretire his number and allow players to wear it again. It’s the complete opposite of what we usually do with athletes. We say, this person’s contributions are so unique in their accomplishments and contributions in this sport that no one else is going to be able to wear that number.

Here’s where MLB misses the mark. While everyone is wearing number 42, it’s one day out of the year — so for 364 days out of the year, we’re not talking about Jackie Robinson. We’re not seeing a representation of his legacy. I say unretire it, allow any player to wear it, because you might end up having multiple players choosing to commemorate his legacy by wearing his number.

I believe you’d probably have some prominent players make that decision, and then we’d be talking about his impact more. His presence would literally be seen throughout the entire season.