Route 7 Review
Issue # 2015
baseball is…the collective dream,
the old dream, of men becoming gods
or at the very least, as they remove
their wings, being recognized as men.
In July 1949, Jackie Robinson was asked to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) regarding statements made by Paul Robeson, a successful African American singer and actor who had allegedly stated that African Americans would not fight for the United States in the event of a war with Russia. In this situation, Robinson faced a familiar challenge: standing up for what he believed in while continuing to coexist with and maintain a place within the larger power structures of race, baseball, and America.
Robinson’s predicament represents an almost acute case of double-consciousness, which W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk defined as the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (694). Robinson was an African American living in a country predominantly organized under laws that favored whites over blacks, the first and for some time the only African American baseball player in the major leagues, and a seemingly progressive Left-leaning individual with Republican ties, living in a repressive environment, who realized that to enjoy the most success in his career he could only express his personal views so much. This conflict, this sense of having to negotiate between conflicting and competing identities, is embodied perhaps best in his HUAC testimony, which he used at once to comment on and refute Robeson’s statements and to speak out about persistent difficulties facing African Americans.
Before closely examining Robinson’s HUAC statement, we should first contextualize it within Robinson’s own personal and professional lives. Robinson was 29-years-old at the time he testified. His son was two, and Rachel, Robinson’s wife, was approximately three months pregnant with the couple’s daughter. Thus he had family responsibilities but no other financial means to provide the same quality of life as a job in the major leagues could.1 In addition, racism had grievously impeded on Robinson’s welfare throughout his adult life. In May 1942, for instance, Robinson had been drafted into the U.S. Army, and while riding in an Army bus on July 6, 1944, he was ordered to move from the front to the rear. He refused, and talk of a court martial resulted. His commander, however, refused to authorize a hearing, so Robinson was transferred to another regiment. The new commander quickly charged Robinson with multiple offenses, including being drunk and disorderly, though Robinson had never imbibed in his life. Charges were however reduced to two counts of insubordination, Robinson was acquitted, and he was subsequently honorably discharged in November of 1944. “I was naïve,” he recalled, “about the elaborate lengths to which racists in the Armed Forces would go to put a vocal black man in his place.”
After mustering out, Robinson briefly played football and later was athletic director at Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University) in Austin, Texas. His real break, however, came when the Kansas City Monarchs, a club in the Negro American League, accepted him “on a tryout basis for spring training.” He described the $400-a-month pay—$5,187 in today’s money—as “a financial bonanza.” Less than a year later, on August 28, 1945, Branch Rickey, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, approached Robinson about being the first African American player in the majors. Rickey sought a first baseman who not only would compete on the diamond but also had the patience needed to deal with racist backlash on and off the field. During their monumental discussion, Robinson asked, “[A]re you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey famously replied, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” He signed Robinson for $600 a month, with a $3,500 bonus.
Robinson continued his minor league career and debuted in the majors on April 15, 1947. Although he had his supporters, and many, but not all, of his detractors eventually changed their minds about him and the idea of a racially-integrated league, he nonetheless endured extensive verbal, physical, and mental abuse. He withstood these attacks out of a need to support his family and a desire to play baseball at its highest level. There was another very important reason, too: Robinson played the game to pave the way for other African Americans.2 How ironic then that Robinson found himself “asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee” in July of 1949 “to give the lie to statements made by Paul Robeson” (I Never Had it Made 18-20, 24, 33-34, 81).
Robinson’s appearance before HUAC, Robinson’s biographer Arnold Rampersad argues, would serve as part of a larger series of “hearings on the issue of black Americans and their loyalty to the nation” (Jackie Robinson 211). Robinson was initially “impressed by the fact that a Congressional Committee had asked for [his] views, but [he] realized that they must have felt that [his] popularity would help them refute the Robeson statement…I was in a dilemma because the statement was disturbing to me in some ways, although I believed I knew why it had been made.” In this remark we can already see two instances of Robinson feeling divided, conflicted, over what to do. He had had few viable career options outside of baseball, none as well-paying, and several obligations to people other than himself. No doubt he must have wondered what effect not testifying could potentially have on his athletic career. If the public withdrew its increasing support from him, though other African Americans had entered the major leagues in the season following his debut, further integration could be delayed by years or even decades. At the same time, we can also see Robinson’s decision to provide testimony as not just a safe or conservative choice. His decision may not have been so much about invalidating Robeson as it was about continuing to speak out against racism.
In the opening paragraph of his statement, Robinson reveals that when he was asked to appear before HUAC and express himself, he “answered that I would be glad to do so.” He continues, saying that “it isn’t exactly pleasant to get involved in a political dispute when my field of earning a living is as far removed from politics as anybody can possibly imagine.” We can imagine Robinson winking his eye at this point as he proceeded to the second paragraph of his statement, explaining that “baseball has been called the great American sport because all Americans get their kicks out of the game some way or other no matter what their political or social connections may be.”
Referring to baseball as the great American sport, however, instantly politicizes it if it were not always already political. America is a place in which, theoretically, its citizens may participate equally and fully regardless of background—much like the game of baseball.3 What Robinson really does here, however, is explain how baseball is political and why the idea of baseball and the idea of America are closely entwined. He also reveals why he has been selected to refute what Robeson supposedly said: If baseball is America’s sport and Robinson is a baseball player, then he is not just American, he is very American, super-American, the ultimate American. And as such he is singularly qualified to speak about Robeson, despite his claims to being removed from politics.
Robinson establishes his position further in the next paragraph, claiming that a number of people have urged him not to appear at the hearing and that some of this urging “came from people…just as opposed to Communist methods as I am.” A few paragraphs later, he tackles the question of why he has agreed to appear. “[I]t isn’t easy to find the answer, but I guess it boils down to a sense of responsibility.” Robinson says that he is not “any expert on communism or any other kind of a political ‘ism,’” but he reminds us of his very American credentials of “helping to fight a war” and playing “professional baseball.”
However, he is also “an expert on being a colored American,” and he commences at this stage in the discourse to explicitly address racism. “[J]ust like any other colored person with sense enough to look around him and understand what he sees, I know that life in these United States can be mighty tough for people who are a little different from the majority.” Robinson clarifies that “little difference” as resulting from a host of differences “in their skin, color or the way they worship their God, or the way they spell their names.”
Although he had successfully entered and continued to compete in the majors, this has not blinded him to other discriminatory practices. As he says, “I’m very well aware the even this limited job isn’t finished yet.” He clarifies this, pointing out that “there are only three major league clubs with only seven colored players signed up, out of close to four hundred major league players on sixteen clubs.”
“A start has been made,” he reports in the next paragraph. “Southern fans as well as Northern fans are showing that they like the way things are working.” Thus, “[W]e’re going to keep on making progress until we go the rest of the way in wiping Jim Crow out of American sports….A sport, to be a real sport has got to be contested on the basis of the best man or team winning,” according to Robinson. “‘Best’ has nothing to do with how much brown or red or yellow tint is in a man’s skin.”
In the following three paragraphs, Robinson considers his perspective on African Americans and the connection, or lack thereof, between political affiliation and racism. “[W]e’re going to make progress in other fields besides baseball if we can get rid of some of the misunderstanding and confusion that the public still suffers from.” “The white public,” he states, “should start…by appreciating that every single Negro…is going to resent any kind of slurs and discrimination on his race and he’s going to use every bit of his intelligence to stop it.” He says that this impulse is separate from Communism and “has got absolutely nothing to do with what Communists may or may not be trying to do” (“Text” 14). What Robinson does is separate Robeson’s statements about his race from his statements about communism. “I knew Robeson was striking out against racial inequality in the way that seemed best to him” (I Never 83).
Consequently, Robinson wants to distance himself and black America from communism without a wholesale rejection of Robeson and his general position against racism.4 To be sure that the Committee and the reader understand the point, Robinson tells them that “because it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality and lynching…doesn’t change the truth of his charges.” He adds that “a lot of people try to pretend that the whole issue is a creation of Communist imagination.” African Americans “were stirred up long before there was a Communist party and they’ll stay stirred up long after the party has disappeared” unless acts of racial discrimination such as Jim Crow have ended (“Text” 14).
The chain of thinking Robinson seeks to avoid is as absurd as it is simple: if complaints of and comments against racial inequality only come from communists, then all African Americans must be communist and what really needs to be eliminated is not racism, the fallacious invention of the communist imagination, but, rather, communism. Communism, then, is the real problem, not racial discrimination, which is a fiction invented by the communist imagination. What he argues is that whereas racial equality is the true expression of democracy, that Robeson is communist is purely incidental. Robeson’s comments regarding racism, which are valid to Robinson, are not to be conflated with Robeson’s political beliefs. In a masterstroke, Robinson not only decouples communism from actions and words against racial discrimination but also positions racism as staunchly opposed to democracy. He says that African Americans are “going to hate any other influence that kills off democracy in this country” including “racial discrimination in the Army, and segregation on trains and buses, and job discrimination because of religious beliefs or color or place of birth.”
“A Contradiction in Human Terms”: Jackie Robinson’s HUAC Testimony,
Double-Consciousness, and the Politics of Baseball;
With an Appendix that Addresses Robinson’s Cultural Legacy
By William Nesbitt, Ph.D.
Contributing Editor, Stephen B. Armstrong, Ph.D.