Jackie Robinson is remembered for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but he played a less heralded role in Republican politics and black community activism. Robinson was a vital voice of reason in the early ‘60’s as the black liberation movement in the urban north grew more radicalized. He struggled to preserve an older, conservative vision of social progress against a wave of left-wing extremism.
In his biography, Robinson described what drew him to Republican politics:
“I believed blacks ought to become producers, manufacturers, developers and creators of businesses, providers of jobs. For too long we had been spending too much money on liquor while we owned too few liquor stores and were not even manufacturing it.
“If you found a black man making shoes or candy or ice cream, he was a rarity. We talked about not having capital, but we needed to learn to take a chance, to be daring, to pool capital, to organize our buying power so that the millions we spent did not leave our communities to be stacked up in some downtown bank.
“In addition to the economic security we could build with green power, we could use economic means to reinforce black power. How much more effective our demands for a piece of the action would be if we were negotiating from the strength of self-reliance rather than stating our case in the role of a beggar or someone crying out for charity.”
The 1964 Republican Convention was the first to give white Southerners a significant role. Not surprisingly, it also featured lowest black representation ever at a GOP national convention. Not coincidentally, the second lowest was 2012.
Robinson described his experience in his biography, I Never Had It Made:
“I felt the GOP was a minority party in term of numbers of registered voters and could not win unless they updated their social philosophy and sponsored candidates and principles to attract the young, the black, and the independent voter.
“I said this often from public, and frequently Republican, platforms. By and large Republicans had ignored blacks and sometimes handpicked a few servile leaders in the black community to be their token “n___rs”. How would I sound trying to go all out to sell Republicans to black people? They’re not buying. They know better…
“A Barry Goldwater victory would insure that the GOP would be completely the white man’s party. What happened at San Francisco when Senator Goldwater became the Republican standard-bearer confirmed my prediction…
“That convention was one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of my life… A new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP…It was a terrible hour for the relatively few black delegates who were present.
“Distinguished in their communities, identified with the cause of Republicanism, an extremely unpopular cause among blacks, they had been served notice that the party they had fought for considered them just another bunch of “n___rs”. They had no real standing in the convention, no clout. They were unimportant and ignored…
“One bigot from one of the Deep South states actually threw acid on a black delegate’s suit jacket and burned it. Another one, from the Alabama delegation where I was standing at the time of the Rockefeller speech, turned on me menacingly…”
What Robinson describes is eerily familiar. He complains that blacks were reduced to token status, rolled out to recite party lines but ignored or exiled if they tried to influence policy. Their concerns were marginalized, their participation merely tolerated, their voices drowned.
Robinson continued to work as an adviser to Republican Gov. Rockefeller well into the ‘70’s, but he backed Lyndon Johnson and every subsequent Democratic Presidential nominee. The priorities he expressed for the black community remain to this day largely ignored on both the left and right, with the exception of a brief flowering led by the late Jack Kemp.
The values that drew Jackie Robinson to the GOP are more popular and relevant than ever. Unfortunately, the forces that drove him away are more influential in the GOP now than they have ever been. We can’t seize the opportunity of our potential appeal without releasing our grip on a dead vision of white cultural supremacy. Can we ever tolerate women, Hispanics, and African-Americans who are more than token voices parroting an approved line? If Republicans can find the confidence and courage to embrace authentic cultural diversity a new era of political dominance waits for us.
Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area. He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. (Email: chrladd AT gmail DOT com)