Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles by Black authors that will focus on using op-eds and articles written by Jackie Robinson throughout and after his career. The goal of the project is to focus our attention on the words he used and the subjects he addressed with the platform he had, rather than the platitudes to which we’re usually exposed. Each article will be accompanied by a photo by Jalani Morgan.
Jackie Robinson used the op-ed space in the June 9, 1962 edition of the New York Amsterdam News to formally commemorate (and compliment) then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy on the way he handled himself during a visit to Los Angeles. This appearance came in the wake of the Los Angeles Police Department shooting members of the Black Muslims—all of whom were unarmed—and killing one of them. The local paper claimed that Kennedy was there to sow the seeds of a future investigation into the Black Muslims since they had a tendency to “preach hatred against white people.” As it turned out, the newspaper got it wrong and Jackie had the real scoop—Kennedy himself called Jackie and told him that he wasn’t going to be investigating the Black Muslims. Instead, Jackie wrote that he believed that the Attorney General’s office was going to probe the “whole situation” and he figured that “the chips will fall as they may.”
This is because Jackie himself believed (and stated later in the article) that justice should be doled out equally. He made a point to single out the police, stating that “police who act like the Gestapo and public officials who do nothing about it ought to be slapped down.” As it turned out, the officers who were involved in the shooting weren’t even indicted, and this moment in history ended up being a footnote rather than a flashpoint. However, it was clear where Jackie Robinson stood when it came to the shooting and police brutality in general. He saw that it was wrong that a police altercation with an unarmed black man was met with lethal force, and it was also wrong that this type of thing was still happening in the modern time of 1962. Just six years after he hung up the spikes, this is what the man who broke baseball’s color barrier was up to. He wasn’t just resting on his laurels or taking what he earned from baseball and running away from the public eye. He used his voice and his platform to call out what he felt was an injustice, and there were plenty of occasions where he publicly expressed exasperation with the police moving “like the Gestapo.”
Nearly 20 years later, in 1981, Jackie Robinson and Los Angeles were once again being mentioned in the same breath. UCLA dedicated their just-finished baseball stadium after Jackie, whose athletic exploits for the Bruins are the stuff of legend. Unfortunately, Jackie didn’t live to see the honor, having passed away in 1972. UCLA’s baseball stadium was one of many accolades the first ballot Hall-of-Famer received after his death. The fact that you can go to any major league ballpark and see a blue number 42 in the same space as the other retired numbers is testament to that. He got the same treatment at UCLA—his number has been retired across all sports in the school’s decorated athletic program. Jackie Robinson has been rightfully held up as a true American hero but, as venerated as he is, there have been plenty of times where we’ve failed Jackie when it comes to his legacy and how he felt when it came to his politics.
Almost 30 years after UCLA named their baseball stadium after him, the university found themselves caught in a rundown that even prime Jackie Robinson would find a hard time escaping. As all 50 states broke out into protest in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the knees of the police, it was inevitable that Los Angeles would find themselves at the center of some more unrest. Their local police department is infamous for showering themselves in anything but glory. What brought UCLA into the firestorm of controversy is the fact that the LAPD used Jackie Robinson Stadium as a staging site to hold civilians arrested at the protests. UCLA knew about this and let the police do something that Jackie Robinson probably would have publicly excoriated the police for. It’s also extremely likely that Jackie would have laid into his alma mater for allowing this to happen on the grounds of a facility that was named after him—even after the university publicly rebuked the LAPD once word got out that they were detaining protesters on their property.
It’s easy to believe that Jackie Robinson wouldn’t have let that moment slide under the radar. It’s also easy to believe that this wouldn’t have been the moment that brought Jackie into the fray when it came to the protests following George Floyd’s death. It’s easy to believe he would have been talking about that as soon as the unrest began, that he’d have some sort of public opinion on COVID-19 hitting the collective African-American community harder than other communities in the United States. It’s easy to believe these things, because he made a habit of speaking on similar injustices throughout his playing career. Because he not only wrote about them, but he took action to back up his beliefs whether they were popular or not.
Jackie Robinson wouldn’t have just sat idly by as injustice continued to flare across the country that he served back in the early 1940s. He wouldn’t have been out here advising people to just “shut up” and play (or just mind their business since there’s not too much playing going on right now in America), and he wouldn’t be trying to solve everything by putting a catchy phrase on a t-shirt. Instead, he would have approached the 2020 situation the same way that he approached the 1962 situation. He would have done whatever he could have in order to fight the blatant racism right in front of his eyes. Then he would have collected his thoughts and he would’ve used his platform to write a column about it.
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