First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson


Never-before-published letters offer a rich portrait of the baseball star as a fearless advocate for racial justice at the highest levels of American politics

Jackie Robinson’s courage on the baseball diamond is one of the great stories of the struggle for civil rights in America, and his Hall of Fame career speaks for itself. But we no longer hear Robinson speak for ...
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Never-before-published letters offer a rich portrait of the baseball star as a fearless advocate for racial justice at the highest levels of American politics

Jackie Robinson’s courage on the baseball diamond is one of the great stories of the struggle for civil rights in America, and his Hall of Fame career speaks for itself. But we no longer hear Robinson speak for himself; his death at age fifty-three in 1972 robbed America of his voice far too soon.

In First Class Citizenship, Jackie Robinson comes alive on the page for the first time in decades. The scholar Michael G. Long has unearthed a remarkable trove of Robinson’s correspondence with - and personal replies from - such towering figures as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, and Barry Goldwater. These extraordinary conversations reveal the scope and depth of Robinson’s effort during the 1950s and 1960s to rid America of racism.

Writing eloquently and with evident passion, Robinson charted his own course, offering his support to Democrats and to Republicans, questioning the tactics of the civil rights movement, and challenging the nation’s leaders when he felt they were guilty of hypocrisy - or worse. Through his words as well as his actions, Jackie Robinson truly personified the "first class citizenship" that he considered the birthright of all Americans, whatever their race.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Coinciding with the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball, which broke the sport's color barrier, this absorbing collection of letters reveals new facets of the icon's sometimes private nature. The correspondence ranges from 1946 to 1972, with such pen pals as Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Barry Goldwater. Among the more fascinating exchanges are Robinson's dialogues with Richard Nixon over civil rights; his conciliatory responses to damning missives from Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell accusing him of an "Uncle Tom" stance; his blistering note to Mississippi segregationist James Eastland on prejudice; and his quest to make the Republican Party color-blind with notes to Nelson Rockefeller and Goldwater. Assembled by Elizabethtown College religious studies professor Long, the letters trace Robinson's political life, seeking to rationalize the schism between his equal rights fantasies and the reality of a tarnished American dream. Fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers star will find this collection more satisfying than much other published work about him. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Those looking for a throwback to the days of non-instantaneous communication will find a passionate soul unveiled in the civil rights letters of Jackie Robinson-the first African American to play baseball in the previously all-white major leagues. Gathered by Long (religious studies, Elizabethtown Coll.), these letters (both sent and received) are a narrative of the wider black freedom movement, featuring Robinson as our guide, commentator, and unrepentant conscience. They reveal the evolving relationships Robinson navigated with the likes of Barry Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and most curiously, Richard Nixon, whom Robinson supported during his 1960 presidential bid. However, the relationship between Nixon and the always candid Robinson became strained over time, leading to a withdrawal of support in the 1968 presidential elections. A similar book giving us some taste of, among other topics, Robinson's letters to Malcolm X, is The Jackie Robinson Reader: Perspectives on an American Hero, edited by Jules Tygiel. This new gathering will impel even the nonsports enthusiast to spend an afternoon with this man. Suited for public and undergraduate libraries.
—Jim Hahn

Kirkus Reviews
Correspondence on social issues to and from the former Brooklyn Dodger who broke the race barrier in major league baseball. Editor Long (Religious Studies/Elizabethtown College; God and Country?: Diverse Perspectives on Christianity and Patriotism, 2007, etc.) discovered the core of this collection while researching Richard Nixon, a frequent Robinson correspondent. Believing he'd found something significant, Long rounded up other letters from elsewhere and assembled this affectionate assortment, which reveals as much about Robinson and his correspondents as it does about the United States in the period it spans (1946-1972). Robinson knew racial bigotry intimately and had suffered for it grievously, but as he left baseball and moved into a political world percolating with racial turmoil, he found himself initially attracted to the GOP, particularly as exemplified by Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller. Their exchanges tend to be made with one eye on the history books. In March 1957, for example, Nixon wrote, "It is a privilege to be working along with someone like yourself to achieve the important objective of guaranteed equal opportunity for all Americans." At first, Robinson mistrusted both John and Robert Kennedy (oddly, nothing appears here about their assassinations); he later warmed to both, however, as he cooled toward Nixon and Rockefeller. He generally supported the war in Vietnam, where his son was wounded in action, and wrote a long letter chiding Martin Luther King Jr. for his anti-war position. Robinson had a fragile, uneasy relationship with King, but it was cordial compared to his interactions with NAACP head Roy Wilkins and fire-breathing radical Malcolm X. It's disturbing to readunctuous letters from white politicos panting for black votes and trying to co-opt Robinson-troubling, too, to realize that many of the baseball hero's letters and virtually all of his syndicated newspaper columns (some reproduced here) were ghostwritten. Raises more questions than it answers about a courageous man.
From the Publisher
“Here is Jackie Robinson as we’ve never seen him before – wielding a pen instead of a baseball bat, and doing so with devastating effect. Michael G. Long’s book is not only an important contribution to history, it’s a thrilling story that reveals the making of a true American hero. Page by page, we watch as a great athlete becomes a great man. First Class Citizenship is first class all the way.”—Jonathan Eig, author of Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season and Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig

“When I was growing up in Atlanta, I saw Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers play an exhibition game against the local white team. It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my childhood. I remember feeling as if Robinson had won something for all of the black people in the stands that day, and I had much the same feeling as I read the letters in this remarkable book. First Class Citizenship shows us Jackie Robinson at the center of the political battles of the civil rights movement, and we are fortunate to have his words to help guide us today.”—Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., senior managing director, Lazard, former president of the National Urban League, and author of Vernon Can Read!

First Class Citizenship is a rich and impressive reminder of how a courageous, pioneering athlete can also become an insistent and independent-minded political activist on behalf of human rights for all.”—David J. Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bearing The Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

“These letters from and to Jackie Robinson demonstrate clearly the stirring political and intellectual reach of the man, his rare courage and vision. They document his unrelenting desire to match his prowess on the baseball field with significant achievements in politics, business, and civil rights. It is clear that, compared to Robinson, few of our star athletes have possessed as profound a sense of responsibility to their fellow citizens—rich and poor, black and white—and to their nation as a whole.”—Arnold Rampersad, author of Jackie Robinson: A Biography

First Class Citizenship presents a full picture of the man whose grace and confidence on the field were matched (if not surpassed) by a voice that spoke out, long and loud, for the equal opportunity, civil rights, and humanity of all Americans. Jackie Robinson’s letters are a rich and invaluable contribution to his singular legacy and to the dynamic history of the civil rights movement.”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641961168
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/2/2007
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael G. Long is an assistant professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College and is the author of several books on religion and politics in mid-century America, including Against Us, but for Us: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the State and Billy Graham and the Beloved Community: America's Evangelist and the Dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. He lives in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.

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Read an Excerpt

First Class Citizenship

The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson

By Long, Michael G. Times Books
Copyright © 2007
Long, Michael G.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780805087109


“Have you seen the Jackie Robinson file?”

I was conducting research on President Richard Nixon at the National Archives in Laguna Beach, California, when the archivist Paul Wormser approached my desk with that beautiful question.

It was December 2005, and while the Robinson file was beyond my immediate research topic, I could not resist the delicious temptation.

“I have not,” I replied. “But I’d like to.”

Paul quickly returned with the file, and for the next several hours I was just spellbound, completely immersed in digesting and copying a significant body of letters between Robinson and Nixon.

The topics ranged from the personal to the political—from shared lunches to Eisenhower’s race politics—but most of them centered on Robinson’s hard-hitting efforts to advance a civil rights agenda within the Republican Party in the 1950s and 1960s.

I was hooked because this was a Jackie Robinson I did not know. Growing up in central Pennsylvania in the 1970s, I had been exposed to benign biographies that depicted him as a smiling second baseman—a nice young man who had “turned the other cheek” when facing those who were furious about Branch Rickey’s experiment of breaking the colorbarrier in Major League Baseball.

Of course, the elementary-school books offered the standard statistics, too, and so I also learned that even while enduring countless taunts, this smiling young man had earned a remarkable .311 career batting average and helped to lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to six National League pennants and one World Series championship.

Call it truncated history—and part of the reason for my shock and delight as I plowed through the Nixon-Robinson correspondence.

Here, at last, was a Jackie Robinson far beyond the baseball diamond. An angry black man who grabbed a pen and wrote rage-filled letters about segregation and discrimination. A fiery prophet who rebuked politicians for telling African Americans to exercise patience and forbearance when pursuing their constitutional rights. A fervent patriot committed to using his celebrity status and considerable resources to overcome the racial divide right now so that his children would have a brighter, bolder future.

It was as if I was meeting a new—or perhaps another—Jackie Robinson.

At first I was not sure what to do with the letters, but after returning to my hotel and watching yet another television program on athletes “gone bad,” I resolved to share that precious file with the wider world. We deserve a much better role model from professional sports, I thought, and who better than Jackie Robinson?

Within the week I asked Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, for permission to publish the letters, and she kindly agreed. But as I continued my research at archives across the country, especially at the Library of Congress, which holds the Jackie Robinson Papers, I began to crave a bigger project.

The letters to Nixon were a good start, but Robinson wrote civil rights letters to so many major historical figures (Malcolm X, Barry Goldwater, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Nelson Rockefeller) and about so many controversial topics (black power, the Vietnam War, divisions within the civil rights movement). And his letters sparked substantive replies that reflected America’s running conversation about politics and race and economics. How could I not share all these letters, too? I went back to Rachel, who has long touted Jackie as an informal civil rights leader, and she graciously agreed to the wider project.

Her generosity is to our benefit, because the more clearly we can hear Jackie Robinson’s voice from beyond the baseball diamond, the better we will understand the complicated history of race and politics in the United States, the more deeply we will sense our successes and failures to establish equal justice under law, and the fairer we will be when assessing the rich legacy of this American icon.

Other scholars and writers have come to this realization long before I have, and Alfred Duckett, Sharon Robinson, Arnold Rampersad, Jules Tygiel, and David Falkner have led the way in introducing us to Jackie Robinson’s life after his retirement from baseball. But their efforts notwithstanding, the general public has largely ignored or dismissed Robinson’s civil rights advocacy beyond the playing field, preferring instead to focus on the bright smile of a youthful baseball player. At best we will occasionally recall his understandable hostility toward fellow players, umpires, and the media during the latter days of his baseball career. But this fiery image, just like his civil rights legacy, has been far from enduring.

Perhaps it has been safe and convenient for us to picture Robinson as the tolerant, clean-cut ballplayer who gently helped to integrate professional sports in the United States. But however comfortable it may be, our collective focus on the first part of his baseball career is utterly unfair to the Jackie Robinson who loudly criticized the practices and policies of racist America, devoted countless hours to civil rights fund-raising and rallies, twisted the arms of politicians hungry for black votes and yet fearful of a white backlash, and encouraged young African Americans who have since become well-known veterans in the ongoing battle for civil rights.

This is the Jackie Robinson you will discover in the pages ahead. You will soon see that the only object mightier than a bat in his right hand was a ballpoint pen, and that in the struggle for civil rights he wielded his pen with remarkable talent and energy.

While he lavished eloquent praise on those who sought to overcome racial segregation and discrimination (for example, Lyndon Johnson and the Freedom Riders of the 1960s), Robinson also wrote scorching letters to anyone who dared to differ with his vision of fair play for African Americans (for example, Barry Goldwater and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.).

By turns affectionate and direct, incisive and incendiary, the letters provide us with a fresh opportunity to encounter Robinson anew, this time in his own words—largely unfiltered and uncensored, and sometimes just plain unbelievable.

It is not always easy to understand this prophet with pen in hand. Robinson’s passion for civil rights was complicated and nuanced. A natural maverick, he charted his own course, offering his support to Democrats and Republicans, questioning the tactics of civil rights leaders already in conflict with one another, and challenging the nation’s leaders to fulfill the promises of democracy and capitalism.

Robinson’s maverick spirit created a good number of enemies along the way. Malcolm X and his followers depicted him as an “Uncle Tom” perfectly suited to clean up after his “white bosses,” and the Nixon administration identified him as a threat significant enough to warrant a written report from J. Edgar Hoover—even as Robinson offered to help the Nixon team.

Taken together, Robinson’s letters and their replies provide us with new insight into the conversations that both created and weakened the civil rights movement. Above all else, however, these rich letters complete our picture of Jackie Robinson—a Hall of Fame baseball player, to be sure, but also an extraordinary political powerhouse and a civil rights leader in his own right, who personified the “first class citizenship” that he demanded for all Americans, and who, to the day of his death, fiercely competed against anyone who would stand in his way.

Copyright © 2007 by Michael G. Long. All rights reserved.


Excerpted from First Class Citizenship by Long, Michael G. Copyright © 2007 by Long, Michael G.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Editor's Introduction     xiii
A Note on the Text     xvii
Faith in Democracy: 1946-1956     1
From Faith to Frustration: 1957     21
Against Patience: 1958     45
Profiles in Question: 1959     61
Selling Nixon: 1960     81
Wrong About Kennedy?: 1961     121
From the Hall of Fame to Hallowed Ashes: 1962     137
Back Our Brothers-Except Adam and Malcolm: 1963     161
The Campaign Against Bigotry: 1964     189
A Rockefeller Republican: 1965-1966     209
Sharp Attacks, Surprising Defenses: 1967     241
The Politics of Black Pride: 1968     265
Moving Forward in Our Struggle: 1969-1972     287
Abbreviations     321
Notes     323
Location of Letters     331
Permissions Credits     341
Acknowledgments     343
Index     347
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