Reclaiming 42: Public Memory and the Reframing of Jackie Robinson's Radical Legacy

Reclaiming 42: Public Memory and the Reframing of Jackie Robinson's Radical Legacy

by David Naze
Reclaiming 42: Public Memory and the Reframing of Jackie Robinson's Radical Legacy

Reclaiming 42: Public Memory and the Reframing of Jackie Robinson's Radical Legacy

by David Naze


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Reclaiming 42 centers on one of America’s most respected cultural icons, Jackie Robinson, and the forgotten aspects of his cultural legacy. Since his retirement in 1956, and more strongly in the last twenty years, America has primarily remembered Robinson’s legacy in an oversimplified way, as the pioneering first black baseball player to integrate the Major Leagues. The mainstream commemorative discourse regarding Robinson’s career has been created and directed largely by Major League Baseball (MLB), which sanitized and oversimplified his legacy into narratives of racial reconciliation that celebrate his integrity, character, and courage while excluding other aspects of his life, such as his controversial political activity, his public clashes with other prominent members of the black community, and his criticism of MLB.

MLB’s commemoration of Robinson reflects a professional sport that is inclusive, racially and culturally tolerant, and largely postracial. Yet Robinson’s identity—and therefore his memory—has been relegated to the boundaries of a baseball diamond and to the context of a sport, and it is within this oversimplified legacy that history has failed him. The dominant version of Robinson’s legacy ignores his political voice during and after his baseball career and pays little attention to the repercussions that his integration had on many factions within the black community.

Reclaiming 42 illuminates how public memory of Robinson has undergone changes over the last sixty-plus years and moves his story beyond Robinson the baseball player, opening a new, broader interpretation of an otherwise seemingly convenient narrative to show how Robinson’s legacy ultimately should both challenge and inspire public memory.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496214942
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 06/01/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 246
File size: 772 KB

About the Author

David Naze is the dean of academic excellence and support at Joliet Junior College. 

Read an Excerpt


Robinson's Postplaying Career

A Political Impact

I think I've been much more aggressive since I left baseball.

— Jackie Robinson

The contemporary mainstream legacy of Jackie Robinson is often remembered as one that portrays a patriotic pioneer. American mainstream memories of Jackie Robinson do not typically include a Robinson voicing a sharp critique of fellow black political figures, despite evidence to the contrary. In this chapter we see a Robinson who portrays just that: an outspoken member of the black community calling out fellow prominent figures for exercising what Robinson deems inappropriate and dangerous views.

During the 1950s and '60s, Jackie Robinson pursued political aspirations for life after baseball. It was in the New York Post and New York Amsterdam News that Robinson published a nationally syndicated column to speak out about racial politics and the state of black Americans. Throughout the late 1940s until his death in 1972, Robinson was quite a prolific letter writer, particularly including correspondence with many prominent politicians and public leaders. His correspondents included the likes of Richard Nixon; Barry Goldwater; Nelson Rockefeller; John F. Kennedy; Martin Luther King; Lyndon Johnson; Ralph Bunche; Roy Wilkins; New York mayor John Lindsay; Hubert Humphrey; Clifford Alexander Jr., White House deputy special counsel; George Fowler, chairman of the New York State Commission for Human Rights; Everett Hutchinson, chair of the Interstate Commerce Commission; A. Philip Randolph, international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Emil Rieve, vice president of the AFL-CIO; and Clarence Townes, director of minorities for the Republican National Committee, among many others. Robinson wrote myriad public letters as well as his newspaper column. Sometimes Robinson conflated the two, writing public letters in his newspaper column. The two letters of Robinson's examined in this chapter, those to Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X, are a continuation, even a hybrid of sorts, of Robinson's writing outlets. One of the most significant correspondences was that between Jackie Robinson and Malcolm X, coming at a time when Robinson's conservative political philosophy and Malcolm's radical perspectives were considered to be at their respective peaks.

Robinson expressed his respect for Ralph Bunche and voiced his outrage toward Malcolm X's attacks of Bunche. Malcolm X responded to Robinson's column via public letter in the same newspapers. Additionally, on March 30, 1963, Robinson's public letter to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell caused a stir that became the impetus for Malcolm's public rejoinder to Robinson. Robinson's initial letter criticized Powell, a representative from Harlem, for his alleged congressional corruption as well as his association with Malcolm X. Later that year on November 30, 1963, Malcolm returned the favor with a public letter to Robinson.

Jackie Robinson's political involvement continued to grow outside his playing career, becoming even more overt and public after retirement from baseball. After he hangs up his Dodgers uniform for good, Robinson's political voice really begins to take shape, becomes more purposeful, and transforms the ways in which we may remember the more passive and undisruptive Jackie Robinson with which many of his supporters and admirers have grown accustomed to remembering. We start to see an aggressive Robinson, a man who makes clear distinctions between whom he supports politically and publicly. These distinctions pull no punches and contrast sharply with the popular version of Robinson to which we are typically exposed. The postbaseball Jackie Robinson persona is examined in this chapter, as we will start to see the transformation from Jackie Robinson, the baseball icon, to Jackie Robinson, the political advocate.

As we will see throughout the letters examined in this chapter, there are four themes that illustrate Robinson's rhetorical efforts to lay claim as a leader in the black community. Those four themes include the battle over legitimacy, the battle over agency, the battle over the mainstream, and the battle over coalition building. These themes are important to this book for three important reasons. First, they illustrate the rhetorical struggles Jackie Robinson had to endure in order to sustain his visibility within the civil rights movement. Second, they provide a new lens through which to view Robinson's otherwise uncomplicated memory. Finally, they offer a glimpse of Robinson's political identity. This chapter not only will tell us some things about how Jackie Robinson's memory doesn't fit into neat categories, but will also use this case study to tell us something about race in America, and more specifically about race in American sports.

The section that follows offers a thematic analysis rather than a strict sequential examination of the letters exchanged by all three men. That is, rather than merely employ the method of looking at each individual letter paragraph by paragraph, we will focus on the themes that are present in the letters and how various excerpts illustrate each theme. To get a clearer understanding of the impetus for each letter, we turn to a brief background of Robinson and Powell's exchange. This exchange sets the foundation for the exchange between Robinson and Malcolm, which came several months later.

Robinson and Powell: A Background

In his open letter to Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Robinson criticizes the congressman for allegedly, during a mid-March rally in Harlem, urging African Americans to "boycott major civil rights organizations that they did not control." Despite a public denial that he had urged such a boycott, Powell repeatedly insisted that African Americans take leadership roles in civil rights organizations. As Powell stated in March 1963, "We must seize control of these organizations. We must put into policy control those persons who represent the black masses." The initial letter addressing Congressman Powell provoked a plethora of letters to the editor the following week in the April 6 edition of the Amsterdam News. As for Powell's response to Robinson, the Amsterdam News did not publish a reply. It is unknown, or at least undocumented, if Powell did in fact respond to Robinson and it simply was not published or if Powell simply did not respond at all.


Throughout his letter to Congressman Powell as well as his letter to Malcolm X, we see the first of four themes: Robinson's engagement in a battle over legitimacy. More specifically, both men claim to speak for African Americans. For instance, Robinson's letter to Congressman Powell, written in the New York Amsterdam News on March 30, 1963, was forthright and commanding. The letter opened with the following statement: "Most columnists who write open letters to public personalities don't really want an answer. Let me state, at the beginning, that I would appreciate an answer from the person to whom I am directing this open letter and, if it is forthcoming, I will carry every line in this space, regardless of what it says." Robinson's opening statements frame himself as someone who is proactively pursuing a dialogue with his adversary, in this case a congressional representative. This is the first step to staking claim to who truly speaks for the black community. Rather than present himself as someone who is merely grandstanding, Robinson attempts to illustrate his desire to publicly and openly engage in contentious conversation with those who present a problem to the image of the black community. Interestingly, this differs from the initial image of Jackie Robinson that mainstream America was introduced to sixteen years earlier. The image of Jackie Robinson of 1947 was one that was contained, more or less, by management in order to temper the anticipated backlash of baseball's racial integration. A famous exchange from 1945 reveals this expectation regarding Jackie Robinson's role: "[Robinson:] 'Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who's afraid to fight back?' [Rickey:] 'I want a player with guts enough not to fight back.'"

As documented through endless accounts of Robinson's career, Robinson portrayed the image as illustrated in Rickey's above plea. This image is often the image that mainstream America remembers of Jackie Robinson — the docile, obedient figure who did not engage in public confrontation. However, as we saw from previous discussions, even the most controversial of engagements, particularly in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, have been "forgotten" in Robinson's historical legacy.

Robinson's battle for legitimacy continues in the opening comments of his letter to Powell, as he attempts to illustrate what Powell's responsibility is during times of social crisis. As Robinson writes, "Most people who use the word 'friend' use it loosely. I don't. But when I believe a friend is in the wrong, I feel I have the right to tell him so and if the wrong I think he committed was a public act or utterance, then I feel I have the right to tell him so publicly. This letter is for you — Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr." When calling Powell out by name, Robinson uses not only Powell's full name but his title as well, an indication of Robinson's focus on Powell's role as a public servant. The focus on Powell's role as a public servant is meaningful because it further reinforces the idea that Robinson is not afraid to go after a public official who has a responsibility to his constituents. This can be seen as an attempt by Robinson to garner public support rather than merely disparaging an individual with whom he disagrees.

In the final three paragraphs of the letter, Robinson continues his explanation of his criticism. The first of the final three paragraphs begins to soften a little yet sustains its critical edge. As Robinson writes, "Whatever you may believe, Adam, I write this letter more in sadness than in anger. I, like many others, have been troubled by what has seemed to be your growing insensitivity to the cause of our people and your seemingly increasing disregard for your responsibilities to the job you have been sent to Washington to do." The first line makes an explicit effort to signal a tone shift. To suggest that he writes this letter "more in sadness than in anger" appears to be an effort to maintain the personal tone consistent throughout the letter. That personal tone suggests that Robinson sees Powell as someone who has lost his grasp on what his responsibility is to the black community. Thus, Powell no longer should be seen as someone who represents the black community. As Robinson continues in the conclusion of his letter, he addresses the enemy issue. Specifically, he aligns himself with the sentiments of other members of the black community, though in this case the sentiment comes from an individual rather than an entire people. As Robinson writes, "Recently, on the campus of Howard University, I received a tongue-lashing from a student who demanded to know how I could balance my belief and personal principles with my consistent defense of a 'demagogue like Adam Powell.' I replied that I too felt you had been derelict in your duties on many occasions, but that I did not wish to help our common enemies." By claiming to be on the receiving end of criticism from other members of the black community, Robinson positions himself as someone who must also answer to the shortcomings of Adam Clayton Powell. That is, Robinson claims that his relationship with Powell has resulted in public criticism of that relationship, and thus he felt the need to separate himself from Powell on some level. However, Robinson uses the words of another person in order to identify Powell as a "demagogue." Through this strategy, Robinson is able to not only condemn Powell but also use specific derogatory terms without claiming to have said them himself. This further aligns Robinson with the public sentiment of an entire community. This is key because part of what is going on here is that this letter, as well as the letter to Malcolm X discussed later in this section, represents an argument about just what the "public sentiment" of the African American community really is. That is, Robinson claims to know what the pulse of the African American community really is, something that can be identified only by someone who speaks for African Americans.

As Robinson continues in his letter to Powell,

I can only conclude, Adam, that this latest tantrum of yours stems from the fact that you are infuriated because Roy Wilkins and the Board of the NAACP did not rush to your defense in your recent battle with your fellow Congressmen.

You set up the usual crybaby yell that you were being persecuted because you are a black man when it was pretty obvious that you had placed yourself in a vulnerable position to be condemned by many people with many different motives. The Negro people are growing up, Adam. I do not believe they are sympathetic any longer to the business of supporting anything anyone does — wrong or right — simply because he belongs to the race. ... It was pretty obvious that you had placed yourself in a vulnerable position to be condemned by many people with many different motives.

Robinson is voicing a perspective that he himself actually spoke out against in front of the HUAC hearings fourteen years earlier. As we recall from previous discussions, Robinson intimated that Robeson did not speak for the entire black community. As Robinson stated then, "Paul Robeson's statement in Paris to the effect that American Negroes would refuse to fight in any way against Russia ... sounds very silly to me. ... I've got too much invested for my wife and child and myself in the future of this country ... to throw it away." As a result, we are witnessing a progression of Robinson's thought process; Jackie Robinson is progressing from thinking that no single individual's voice can represent the sentiments of an entire community to believing that one individual's voice, while not speaking for every member of a community, can articulate the sentiments that are significantly visible within a community as a whole. This progression is obscured when we are not given a more complete picture. Having only a snapshot of Robinson's political thought process is problematic because it reduces the ways we remember the political tone of the black community during this time.

Essentially, Robinson's suggestion that he knows the pulse of all black Americans is certainly not without its merit, but it parallels Paul Robeson's similar suggestion, that one man's view represents the view of an entire people. Ironically, Robinson's critiques of both Robeson and now Powell suggest that these two men do not represent the black community. Essentially, Robinson's suggestion in the letter to Powell parallels his similar suggestion that one man's view represents the view of an entire people. However, Robinson's critique suggests that he can do something that Powell cannot do — represent the voice of the black community.

As we have seen thus far, Robinson has shown a willingness to openly dispute the proclamations by those with whom he disagrees, even if, or perhaps especially if, that includes an African American congressman. Specifically, we have seen Robinson's sharp critical edge take shape in his public claim that Congressman Powell has lost touch with his responsibility as a public servant, particularly as one who serves the black community. Such a critical edge compelled Robinson to somewhat separate himself from Powell, which further shows a progression of Robinson's political thinking. In terms of this book overall, these insights provide further evidence that the Jackie Robinson we have come to learn as a soft-spoken, compliant, and submissive figure is anything but that. Moreover, as we will continue to see in the next section, Jackie Robinson as an outspoken political voice continues to take shape in ways that legitimize his claim as a voice representative of the black community, something we have rarely been exposed to in contemporary versions of Robinson's legacy.


As we turn to Robinson's letters to Malcolm, we see Robinson continuing to engage in a battle over who represents the black community. That is, Robinson positions himself as a voice of the larger black community. Robinson employs a consistent strategy and almost identical phrasing to illustrate his disdain of both Malcolm and Powell. We are witnessing both a progression and a consistency in Robinson's rhetoric, as his attitude moves from claiming no individual speaks for an entire people to asserting that an entire people can be unified by an individual voice. Robinson, much like in his letter to Powell, immediately goes on the offensive. In the following paragraph, Robinson sharpens his criticism of Malcolm as he invokes the name of Elijah Muhammad as well as painting Malcolm as an individual who is divisive and possesses a hateful disposition, a disposition that could not represent the entire black community. As Robinson writes, "Those of us who are so committed have no intention of supporting the idea of a separate black state where the Honorable Muhammad can be the ruler and you, his immediate successor — and all because you, Malcolm, hate white people. Too many of our young people have gone to jail and too many millions of dollars have been invested in our fight for equality for us to pay serious heed to your advice. Whether you like this country or not is of little concern to me." Robinson first positions himself as a representative of the black sentiment shared by many in the black community. The notion that Robinson and others of his ilk don't have any intentions of advocating the idea of a separate black state draws a clear line in the sand as to where the black community is divided. Second, Robinson further reinforces his sharp critical edge by explicitly portraying Malcolm as hateful, specifically evidenced with the phrase "you, Malcolm, hate white people." By calling Malcolm out in no uncertain terms, Robinson positions himself as a member of the black community who, at least in the eyes of white America, should never be conflated with Malcolm X or with the sentiments of Islam. Finally, Robinson uses a strategy that parallels a similar strategy he used when testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee against the anti-U.S. sentiments of Paul Robeson fourteen years earlier. During that particular testimony in 1949, Robinson used the term "investment," which he utilizes in his letter to Malcolm, as evidenced in the section that suggests that too many members of the black community have gone to jail and invested too much money to follow Malcolm's advice. Additionally, the "investment" to which Robinson refers is something that he argues cannot be discarded because of one individual black man's opinion.


Excerpted from "Reclaiming 42"
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Have We Failed Jackie Robinson’s Legacy?    
1. Robinson’s Postplaying Career: A Political Impact    
2. The Robinson-Robeson Clash: A Siren Song Sung in Bass    
3. Cooperstown and Kansas City: The Museum Narratives    
4. Jackie Robinson Day: The Contemporary Legacy    
Conclusion: Taking Inventory of a Legacy    

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