Seventy years ago today – July 18, 1949 – members of the right-wing, segregationist Congress orchestrated a confrontation between the two most-known and most admired African-Americans in the country: Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson. The media salivated the opportunity to represent the shock of these larger-than-life titans as a substitute for the cold war between capitalism and communism.
A few weeks earlier, Robinson – who had joined Major League Baseball when he signed with the Dodgers in 1947 – had received a telegram from Congressman John Wood (Georgia), former segregationist and former member of the Ku Klux Klan, chairing the – Committee US activities (HUAC). He invited Robinson to speak at a hearing on "The Communist Infiltration of Minority Groups".
Specifically, he wanted Robinson to attack Robeson because he was an unfaithful American and communist agitator who did not speak for blacks.
The pretense of the hearing was a statement that Robeson had made in April at a left-wing conference in Paris. The media ignored Robeson's main argument that most Americans, including blacks, did not want to go to war with the Soviet Union. Instead, most media outlets used the Associated Press report, quoting Robeson: "If a war broke out between the United States and Russia," it is unthinkable that the American Negroes go to war with name of those who oppress us for generations against countries which, in a generation, raised our people to the full dignity of humanity. "
At the time, Robeson was at the height of his glory. Born in 1898 of a former fugitive slave, he played in four different sports at Rutgers, was named twice in the American football team, won the Rutgers Public Speaking Award four years in a row , was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and was promoted. from his class of 1919. He played professional football to pay tuition at Columbia University Law School, but stopped practicing law to pursue a career in the theater. A great actor of cinema and theater, he could also sing operas, show tunes, negro spirituals and international songs in 25 languages. His concerts attracted a huge audience. His recordings sold well. During the Second World War, he entertained troops on the front and sang battle songs on the radio.
Robeson was also a provocative activist. He gave free concerts for left-wing unions and progressive causes. He refused to play in roles that humiliated African Americans. In 1945, he led an organization that challenged President Harry Truman to support an anti-lynching law. That year, the NAACP awarded Robeson the Spingarn Medal, his highest honor. He was a staunch critic of European and American imperialism and a staunch defender of nations, in Africa and elsewhere, seeking to free himself from the yoke of colonialism. He embraced the Soviet Union, which he said had done more than his country of origin to fight racism and anti-Semitism.
Ironically, Robeson also played a key role in opening Robinson's breakthrough. In 1943 he led a delegation of prominent African Americans, including the owners of major black newspapers, who met with baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and team owners to demand the desegregation of the sport. "The time has come when you have to change your attitude towards the Negroes," Robeson told them. "Because baseball is a national game, it's up to baseball to see that discrimination does not become an American model."
Robinson was also a sports star and an activist. Born in UCLA in 1919, he was considered the best all-round athlete in the country, earning university letters in baseball, basketball, football and track. He briefly played professional football before joining the army during the Second World War. In 1944, as a 25 – year – old army lieutenant in Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson was brought to court martial for refusing to order a bus driver to stand on his feet. at the back of the vehicle. Arrested on false charges and tried, he was found not guilty and released honorably.
After briefly playing baseball in the black leagues, Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945 and, two years later, broke the long barrier of color that characterized baseball major. In his first season, he led the Dodgers to the National League pennant and was elected Rookie of the Year. In 1949 – his best year, when he finally won the Most Valuable Player award – he was a celebrated national hero. His success on the baseball field and the dignity with which he managed his meetings with racism on and off the pitch awoke the conscience of many white Americans and gave a tremendous boost of pride to black Americans.
Robinson hesitated to testify against Robeson. He did not agree with Robeson's communist views, but he admired his whole life of militancy.
"I did not want to fall prey to the white game and allow myself to compete with another black man," he wrote later. "I knew that Robeson was fighting racial inequality in the way that seemed best to him."
Branch Rickey, the Dodger owner who recruited Robinson, was an anti-communist fervent and reminded him that if he refused to testify, HUAC could still call him. Robinson also felt a "sense of responsibility" to convey the loyalty of black Americans.
On the morning of July 18, Robinson and his wife Rachel flew to Washington, DC, a city where first-class hotels were still racially segregated. On this occasion, HUAC waived its rule against media photographs.
As expected, Robinson criticized Robeson, but he was far from the hard attack that Wood and his HUAC colleagues were hoping for. Instead, Robinson made a passionate demand for racial integration and challenged America's hypocrisy about race relations.
Regarding Robeson's speech in Paris, Robinson said Robeson "is entitled to his personal opinions, and if he wants to appear ridiculous when he expresses them in public, it's his business and not mine. – famous athlete and a great singer and actor. "
Contrary to Robinson's testimony, many Americans – and certainly most members of the HUAC – believed at the time that communists had no right to express their views or hold a job. Robinson insisted that blacks were loyal Americans who "would do their best to help their country stay out of the war. If they fail, they will do their best to help their country win the war – against Russia or any other enemy who has threatened us. "
Robinson also challenged HUAC's view that the anger and militancy of Black Americans resulted from communist agitators.
"The fact that he is a communist who denounces judicial injustice, police brutality and lynching when it occurs does not change the truth of his accusations. Just because Communists worry about racial discrimination whenever they feel like it, many people are trying to pretend that this whole thing is a creation of the communist fantasy. "
In fact, Robinson insisted that "the Negroes were excited long before the establishment of a Communist Party and they will remain agitated long after the party's disappearance – unless Jim Crow has also disappeared."
The appearance of Robinson was a major news item, but the press focused on his critics of Robeson and virtually ignored his condemnation of racism. It was part of a wider campaign to isolate Robeson, who had been denounced by the media, politicians and conservative and liberal groups as a traitor and a Soviet shill. Radio stations have banned his recordings. Concert halls and colleges canceled performances.
In 1950, the State Department revoked Robeson's passport so that he could no longer perform abroad, where he was still popular. His annual income has dropped from over $ 150,000 to under $ 3,000. His voice was marginalized during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. His name and photo were even dropped from American college football teams. He died alone and broken on January 23, 1976 at the age of 77 years.
Robinson, who spent his entire ten-year career in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, leading the team to six pennants and one World Series win, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.
After retiring from baseball in 1956, no team offered him a coaching, managerial or executive position. He has lent his name to several companies, including a black-owned construction company and bank in Harlem, to help address the shortage of affordable housing and the continuing trend of white banks. Both companies have experienced difficult times and tarnished Robinson's reliance on black capitalism as a strategy for racial promotion and integration.
In 1960, Robinson supported Liberal Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minnesota), a pillar of civil rights, as president. But when Senator John Kennedy won the Democratic nomination, Robinson shocked his fans by supporting Richard Nixon, who he said initially initially understood civil rights issues better. However, during the election campaign – especially after Nixon refused to go to Harlem – he regretted his choice. He supported Humphrey on Nixon in 1968.
During and after his playing days, Robinson used his public platform – in speeches, interviews and his article in a weekly newspaper – to fight racial injustices. He was constantly present on picket lines and rallies for civil rights. He worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. who called him "a sit-inner before sit-in, a runner of freedom before freedom". He was one of the best fundraisers of the NAACP, but resigned from his board of directors in 1967 for failing. include "younger and more progressive voices".
In 1968, he publicly supported the first demonstration of track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the Mexico City Olympics. In 1970, he was one of two former baseball players (the other was Hank Greenberg) to testify in federal court to support Curt Flood's recourse to the baseball reserve clause, which kept players in contract servitude with their teams. Concerned about his activism and influence, the FBI kept a record of Robinson.
In his last public appearance, after launching the first ceremonial throw of the 1972 World Series, Robinson criticized Major League Baseball for not hiring black managers and coaches.
In his autobiography of 1972, I never did itRobinson observed:
"I can not believe I did it when so many of my black brothers and sisters are hungry, poorly housed, not adequately dressed, not worthy of dignity, living in slums or naked. there is hardly any social assistance. "
Years before Colin Kaepernick was born, Robinson wrote: "I can not bear to sing the anthem. I can not salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. "
He also apologized to Robeson, writing that he would reject HUAC's invitation "if it were offered now".
"I have become wiser and closer to the painful truths about the destructive power of America and have greater respect for Paul Robeson, who over the past 20 years has sacrificed himself , his career, the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed, because to believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people. "
Robinson died of a heart attack and diabetes-related complications at the age of 53 on October 24, 1972.
Shortly after his death, Robinson was almost a forgotten man, but his reputation was restored in 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of his first year, with a proliferation of lectures, exhibitions in museums, plays and books celebrating his life. and his legacy. Major League Baseball withdrew its number – 42. The popular "42" film of 2013 described Robinson's ordeal in his rookie season, but ignored the protest movement of the Negro press, radical unions, defense groups civil rights and communists – including Robeson's 1943 meeting with the owners of baseball – which opened the door for him.
On the other hand, Robeson's reputation has not recovered from his political silence. Few Americans know his life and accomplishments.
In 2014, director Steve McQueen – whose 12 years of slavery won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2013 and announced that he was working with Harry Belafonte on a biography of Robeson, but we have not heard much about this project since then. I hope this will tell the Robeson-Robinson saga as the clash of two ferocious men who have admired each other and have become reluctant symbols of conflicting approaches to racial justice during the Cold War.
Activism Against Racism (t) Civil Rights Movement (t) Cold War