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Jackie Robinson was asked to denounce Paul Robeson. Instead, he went after Jim Crow. — The Undefeated

Jackie Robinson was asked to denounce Paul Robeson. Instead, he went after Jim Crow. — The Undefeated

On the morning of July 18, 1949, Jackie Robinson, dressed sharply in a tan gabardine go well with, arrived at a packed room in Washington, D.C., to testify earlier than a congressional committee concerning the loyalty of black People. Flashbulbs popped as Robinson raised his proper hand and swore to inform the reality. The topic was stage star Paul Robeson, a outstanding Communist sympathizer and one of the crucial outspoken black males within the nation.

Georgia congressman John S. Wooden, chairman of the infamous Home Un-American Actions Committee (HUAC), had invited the Brooklyn Dodgers hero to testify. HUAC was based within the late 1930s to research subversive exercise and political organizations suspected of communism. Segregationists on the committee suspected that civil rights activists have been members of the Communist Get together. In 1948, nevertheless, HUAC’s personal investigators had concluded that Communists had made little progress in recruiting African People.

However a speech given by Robeson in April 1949 earlier than the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Congress in Paris had renewed the committee’s curiosity within the topic. Earlier than Robeson even started his extemporaneous speak in Paris, an Related Press reporter had filed a narrative quoting the actor as saying, “It’s unthinkable that American Negroes would go to struggle on behalf of those that have oppressed us for generations towards the Soviet Union which in a single era has raised our individuals to the complete dignity of mankind.”

Singer Paul Robeson gestures throughout his speech on the World Peace Convention held on April 20, 1949 on the Pleyel Corridor in Paris, France.

AP Photograph/Jean-Jacques Levy

Instantly, U.S. politicians and newspaper writers branded Robeson a traitor for suggesting that black People would refuse to defend the USA if the Chilly Conflict turned scorching. Robeson stated he had been misquoted and had talked about what number of People didn’t need a World Struggle III towards the Soviet Union. However his activism on behalf of oppressed staff, his challenges to racism at house and colonialism overseas, in addition to his affiliation with leftist organizations and his reward for the Soviet Union already had made him a goal of critics within the press and the halls of Congress.

Maybe this sounds acquainted. As black athletes and civil rights advocates, Robeson and Robinson laid the inspiration for Colin Kaepernick’s emergence as an activist-athlete. Kaepernick’s political actions could be traced to the novel black custom, a legacy formed partially by Robeson, the son of a runaway slave, a former athlete and entertainer turned activist, and an opponent of the intertwining forces of capitalism and racism. But Kaepernick’s activism additionally derives from the instance of Robinson, a proponent of the democratic custom and a vocal critic of lynching, police brutality and the disenfranchisement of black individuals.

Since World Warfare I, when Robeson first turned well-known as an All-American soccer participant at Rutgers College, white People anticipated black athletes to be seen and never heard. Within the age of Jim Crow, black athletes resembling Robeson, and later Robinson, got here to be seen as symbols of the nation’s meritocracy, barometers of America’s racial progress. The principles for black athletes have been by no means easy. However everybody understood that they have been anticipated to carry out with out questioning the exploitative system that allowed them to play sports activities however discouraged them from disputing the social order — a lesson Kaepernick discovered when he first took a knee in the course of the nationwide anthem.

All-American soccer participant Paul Robeson at Rutgers College, New Brunswick, N.J., 1917.

AP Photograph

The parallels between Kaepernick and Robeson show that white People have lengthy insisted that black residents ought to stay uncritically patriotic towards the U.S. authorities and its policing establishments. Once they used their platforms to confront racial injustice, critics maligned them, questioned their love for America and recommended that they depart the nation. One might argue that each males have been blackballed from their career and barred from performing as a result of they defied the political boundaries imposed upon black athletes and entertainers.

Though Kaepernick settled his authorized battle towards the NFL house owners, whom he accused of colluding to maintain him out of the league, Robeson didn’t have the identical authorized energy in 1949 to battle towards reserving brokers who blacklisted him or a authorities that revoked his passport the next yr. But Robeson maintained his perception within the promise of America’s democratic rules. “I really like my nation,” he informed a author from the Pittsburgh Courier in July 1949. “I’ve many calls to go to different nations to sing however I’m going to remain proper right here and keep on the struggle.”

Though Robeson and Robinson diverged ideologically, they embodied the identical spirit of resistance. Many keep in mind Robinson as a conservative integrationist, however particularly later in life, his politics have been too complicated for social gathering labels. In 1972, greater than 40 years earlier than Kaepernick began the “take a knee” motion, Robinson wrote in his autobiography, I By no means Had It Made, “I can’t stand and sing the anthem. I can’t salute the flag; I do know that I’m a black man in a white world.”

Jackie Robinson greets the members of the UCLA basketball workforce after they defeated Metropolis School of New York on December 28, 1949 in New York Metropolis. Robinson lettered in 4 sports activities, together with basketball, whereas attending UCLA.

Transcendental Graphics/Getty Pictures

Apart from Joe Louis, no black American was extra well-known in 1949 than Robinson. When he acquired the invitation to testify earlier than the HUAC, he not solely led the Nationwide League in batting common, he had additionally acquired extra votes for the All-Star Recreation than another participant — proof of his reputation amongst black and white followers alike. A army veteran and devoted Christian who opposed communism, Robinson was seen as a “Noble Negro,” an exemplar of accomplishment and applicable conduct for black individuals. That’s why the committee chairman turned to him to reassure the nation that black residents beloved America and would defend it towards the Soviets.

Within the age of the Purple Scare, Robinson believed he had little selection however to testify, regardless that Wooden had not issued a subpoena. If he declined, he risked his baseball profession and being smeared as a communist sympathizer, however he additionally didn’t need to turn out to be “a software of the witch hunters” or a pawn for white males in search of to denigrate a profitable black man. In his 1960 guide, Wait Until Subsequent Yr: The Life Story of Jackie Robinson, Robinson wrote that Wooden was not likely involved with “establishing the patriotism of American Negroes” as a lot as he needed to pit him towards Robeson and advance the concept anybody who spoke out “towards racial discrimination and segregation was a device of world communism.”

Robinson confronted strain from politicians, followers and reporters who all had opinions about whether or not he ought to testify. Stacks of letters and telegrams arrived at his house and at Ebbets Subject. Buddies urged him to talk earlier than the HUAC, whereas others maintained that he ought to inform the committee to “go to hell.” In Wait Until Subsequent Yr, he famous that some black People warned him to not permit white politicians to divide “the coloured individuals of the world.” Robinson understood, too, that if he publicly criticized Robeson, a person he and lots of others admired, he jeopardized his personal reputation amongst black individuals.

Robinson sought the counsel of the one man he trusted greater than some other together with his profession: Dodgers president and co-owner Department Rickey. An outspoken anti-communist, Rickey insisted that he seem earlier than the committee. Nonetheless, Robinson wavered. He didn’t like the thought of getting to defend his personal patriotism or the loyalty of black individuals. And, on the time, he seen himself extra as a logo than a number one voice within the black freedom motion. “I’m unsure, Mr. Rickey. I’m not a politician. I’m a ballplayer,” he stated.

Jackie Robinson makes an attempt to steal residence throughout a Cubs recreation in Chicago on Might 17, 1948. Gil Hodges is at bat.

Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Pictures

Rickey reminded him that the “Nice Experiment” that they began collectively, the mixing of professional baseball, remained unfinished. In 1949, solely three of the 16 main league groups included black gamers. In Wait Until Subsequent Yr, Robinson recalled Rickey saying that if he testified it “can be the ultimate stroke vital to determine endlessly the Negro’s place in baseball — and probably America.”

Robinson ultimately determined to testify, not out of patriotism however, as he later advised members of Congress, out of “a way of duty.” He feared that Robeson’s feedback may persuade white People that black residents couldn’t be trusted or, worse, that they have been the enemy. For Robinson, testifying earlier than the HUAC meant combating a harmful narrative “that Negroes have been ready eagerly to betray the USA.” He had an obligation, subsequently, to dispel any lie which may give white supremacists license to inflict violence towards black residents.

By the point Robinson introduced that he would seem earlier than the HUAC, Robeson had returned house from Paris. Throughout a rally in his honor on the Rockland Palace in Harlem, he defended himself towards the “Uncle Toms” who questioned his “Americanism.” Urging black residents to hitch the battle towards injustice and erase the vestiges of slavery, he stated, “We don’t need to die in useless anymore on overseas battlefields for Wall Road and the grasping supporters of home fascism. If we should die, let it’s in Mississippi or Georgia.”

If we should die, he added, “Let it’s the place we’re lynched.”

Paul Robeson pickets the White Home, protesting discriminatory employment practices on the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Getty Photographs

Robinson’s look earlier than the HUAC passed off a few yr after President Harry S. Truman issued Government Order 9981 abolishing segregation within the armed forces. For assist in getting ready his testimony, Robinson enlisted Lester Granger, government director of the Nationwide City League and a member of the Fahy Committee, which oversaw the desegregation of the army. Robinson understood that his presence on the Dodgers made him probably the most seen check case for integration. He additionally knew that his efficiency on the sector and his testimony had the potential to affect the racial attitudes of hundreds of thousands of People.

Earlier than he testified on Capitol Hill, Robinson informed reporters that black People would shield the USA towards any enemy, simply as they did throughout World Conflict II when he served as a second lieutenant within the U.S. Military. However Robinson knew nicely the racism of the nation’s armed forces. Stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1944, he refused to maneuver when a white bus driver ordered him to the again of an Military bus. Charged with insubordination, disturbing the peace and conduct unbecoming an officer, Robinson finally was discovered not responsible of all costs. In his biography, Robinson famous that on the eve of his HUAC testimony, he might “not assist however sense the irony of the truth that I, a Negro as soon as court-martialed for opposing Military Jim Crow, ought to now be requested to pledge the Negro’s loyalty to the Military.”

Robinson delivered his testimony with poise however little aptitude. He might have revered Robeson, however he didn’t defend him, although the actor wrote him a letter insisting that the press had distorted his Paris remarks. Refusing to be pulled right into a feud with Robeson, the Dodgers star had little to say about him besides that “if Mr. Robeson truly” stated that black People wouldn’t struggle in a warfare towards the Soviets, such a press release appeared somewhat “foolish.”

What made Robinson’s speech so highly effective was the best way he used the highlight to contest racism and advocate for integration, making clear that black residents’ protests for social justice derived not from some communist-inspired conspiracy however from their want for equality and their religion in democracy. His testimony, a defiant verbal assault on Jim Crow, signaled the start of his political liberation:

“White individuals should understand that the extra a Negro hates Communism as a result of it opposes democracy, the extra he’s going to hate some other affect that kills off democracy on this nation—and that goes for racial discrimination within the Military, and segregation on trains and buses, and job discrimination due to spiritual beliefs or shade or homeland.

“And one different factor the American public ought to know, if we’re to make progress on this matter: The truth that it’s a Communist who denounces injustice within the courts, police brutality, and lynching when it occurs doesn’t change the reality of his expenses. Simply because communists kick up an enormous fuss over racial discrimination when it fits their functions, lots of people attempt to fake that the entire problem is a creation of Communist creativeness.

“However they don’t seem to be fooling anybody with this type of pretense, and speak about ‘Communists stirring up Negroes to protest’ solely makes current misunderstanding worse than ever. Negroes have been stirred up lengthy earlier than there was a Communist Get together, they usually’ll keep stirred up lengthy after the social gathering has disappeared — until Jim Crow has disappeared by then as properly.”

Testifying earlier than the HUAC modified Robinson. He not considered himself as only a image of the civil rights motion. For 2 years, he endured abuse and harassment on and off the sector, vowing to show the opposite cheek for the sake of the Nice Experiment. However afterward he refused to stay silent. Within the coming years, he would use his fame to confront Jim Crow, giving speeches for the NAACP, marching with civil rights leaders and writing political columns that had nothing to do with sports activities.

When Robinson completed testifying, the room erupted with applause, and somebody shouted from the again of the gallery, “Amen!”

The marshals of the Youth March for Built-in Faculties demonstration in Washington D.C., October 25, 1958. Amongst these pictured are Jackie Robinson (left), his son Jackie Robinson Jr., labor and Civil Rights chief A Philip Randolph (middle rear, in bow tie), dancer Julie Robinson (second proper, with braided hair), and her husband, singer and Civil Rights activist Harry Belafonte (far proper).

Abbie Rowe/Getty Photographs

The next day, newspaper writers, particularly white ones, praised his efficiency. Headlines blared: “JACKIE HITS ROBESON’S RED PITCH,” “JACKIE HITS A DOUBLE — AGAINST COMMUNISTS AND JIM CROW,” “JACKIE ROBINSON, AMERICAN.” The New York Occasions printed a narrative about him on Web page 1, whereas the New York Day by day Information referred to as him “fairly a credit score, not solely to his personal race, however to all of the American individuals.”

Whereas white writers celebrated Robinson’s patriotic feedback and his obvious dismissal of Robeson, the black press was divided over his efficiency. The New York Age reported that the individuals of Harlem have been “cut up sharply on the difficulty,” though the New York Amsterdam Information couldn’t discover “one individual” in Brooklyn who disagreed with Robinson. Many black columnists praised him for forcefully denouncing segregation and discrimination, although a Pittsburgh Courier columnist argued that Robinson had been a “stooge” for the HUAC.

The editors on the Every day Employee, the official newspaper of the Communist Celebration USA, accused Robinson of “enjoying ball with the Ku Kluxers of the Un-American Committee,” harming “his personal individuals and his nation.” Since 1936, when the Day by day Employee first added a sports activities part, Communist scribes had campaigned for the mixing of Main League Baseball. So, too, did Robeson. In 1943, he met with a gaggle of black sportswriters and MLB house owners, arguing that if he might play soccer with white males, and play Othello on Broadway with white actors, then a black man might definitely make it in baseball. It’s uncertain that Robeson’s actions had any impact on Rickey’s determination to signal Robinson, however Day by day Employee columnist Invoice Mardo claimed that Robinson had turned his again on Robeson, the person who had “personally paved the best way” for his place in Main League Baseball.

The HUAC didn’t invite Robeson to testify till 1956, lengthy after the committee had broken his popularity. After Robinson visited Washington, nevertheless, reporters hounded Robeson for a rebuttal. Throughout a two-hour information convention on the Lodge Theresa in Harlem, he expressed his profound respect for Robinson, praising him for embracing “his duty to be greater than only a ballplayer.” However he additionally believed that “Robinson, by showing earlier than this committee, has carried out a profound political act that has aided those that would enslave the Negro.”

Police attempt to maintain again crowds and make a lane by means of which followers of singer Paul Robeson can depart scene of live performance in Peekskill in New York, Sept. four, 1949 after the conflict between Robeson’s supporters and members of veteran organizations. At proper, 4 African People stroll by means of the swaying police strains.

AP Photograph


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A few month later, in late August, when Robeson was scheduled to carry out at a civil rights profit live performance in Peekskill, New York, a mob of indignant white veterans arrange roadblocks, smashed automobiles, buses and the stage, burned crosses and Robeson in effigy, and put a number of dozen of his followers within the hospital. Fortunately, Robeson escaped unhurt.

The day after the “Peekskill riot,” Mardo approached Robinson within the Dodgers’ dugout. The Day by day Employee columnist confirmed him a newspaper account of the violence. Surprised, Robinson learn the story in silence. Then he seemed up at Mardo with “anger written throughout his face” and stated, “Paul Robeson ought to have the correct to sing, converse, or do something he needs to do. … They are saying right here in America you’re allowed to be no matter you need.” If Robeson needed “to consider in Communism, that’s his proper.”

Listening to him defend Robeson, Mardo got here to respect Robinson. Whereas most People seen them as representatives of rival ideologies, they shared a lot in widespread as outstanding males embattled within the black freedom wrestle. “Jackie Robinson put his hand in Paul Robeson’s, and collectively they fought the identical struggle,” Mardo wrote. “Every in his personal voice, positive. Nevertheless it was the identical struggle.”

Johnny Smith is the Julius C. “Bud” Shaw Professor of Sports activities, Society, and Know-how and an Assistant Professor of Historical past at Georgia Tech. His analysis focuses on the historical past of sports activities and American tradition. He’s an writer whose books embrace “The Sons of Westwood: John Picket, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Modified School Basketball,” which explores the emergence of school basketball as a nationwide pastime and the political conflicts in school athletics in the course of the 1960s and 1970s.

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