photo by Flickr user TheBusyBrain
Jackie Robinson “was a complicated, multifaceted man,” movie reviewer Dana Jennings wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times. One of the things Jennings found “complicated” was Robinson’s loyalty to the Republican Party and his support for Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential race.
Actually, it isn’t complicated at all.
Black Americans had plenty of reasons to vote Republican in 1960. One of the biggest was that throughout the South, where few blacks were permitted to vote at all, the people blocking their path to the ballot were Democrats. White Southerners had been solidly Democratic since the end of Reconstruction. Southern blacks traditionally favored the party of Abraham Lincoln, but they could not act on their beliefs.
Robinson would have been safe in assuming that every Southern sheriff who tried to keep him off a baseball diamond, or out of a restaurant, or away from a whites-only restroom when the Brooklyn Dodgers were in the region was a Democrat.
Chief Justice Earl Warren, author of the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision outlawing segregated public schools in Brown v. Board of Education, had been a Republican governor of California before joining the court. As governor Warren supported integration of Mexican-American students in California classrooms.
Vice President Nixon cast a tie-breaking Senate vote in 1959 in favor of protecting black voting rights in the South, a measure supported by New York’s Republican Sen. Jacob Javits, among others. Sen. John F. Kennedy, Nixon’s opponent in 1960, instead supported southern Democrats’ effort to water down the legislation.
Robinson later worked for Nelson Rockefeller, who became New York’s Republican governor in 1962 and had a long history of supporting historically black colleges. Robinson pushed Rockefeller to appoint blacks to some high-level posts in his previously all-white administration.
Civil rights was not the only factor that drew Robinson toward the GOP. In fact, given the party’s merely spotty support for equal rights - and the outright opposition of Republican conservatives, whom Robinson loathed - it may not even have been the major factor. Robinson put his faith in free enterprise, hard work and economic independence. The pioneering professional ballplayer who fought to earn a living in his chosen field, who wanted to bring African-Americans into the mainstream of their nation’s commerce, was a Republican in the party’s truest sense.
“I believed blacks ought to become producers, manufacturers, developers and creators of businesses, providers of jobs,” Robinson wrote in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, which was published in 1972. “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 it 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 community to be stacked up in some downtown bank.”
Jennings’ cavalier assertion that there is something surprising in Robinson’s Republican leanings is sloppy journalism, but we can give him a pass. The Times’ reviewer does not present himself as a historian. Moreover, the GOP’s image on equal rights has suffered grievous self-inflicted damage over the past five decades. The process began with the rise of the party’s conservative faction at the 1964 convention that nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater for president, and continued in 1968 and 1972 when Nixon aligned himself with southern whites who broke from the Democrats following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Even as early as 1960, some seven out of 10 black voters supported Kennedy over Nixon. Nearly all of them resided outside the South. They were part of an enduring and unlikely coalition that Franklin D. Roosevelt forged during the Great Depression, aligning blacks who sought work in northern factories with the rural southern whites from whom they had fled and the urban labor unions that often kept blacks out of the most lucrative trades. Black votes put JFK in the White House, as Robinson ruefully acknowledged shortly after the election.
If today’s young African-Americans cannot imagine Jackie Robinson as a Republican, the Republican Party has only itself to blame. It has spent the 41 years since Robinson’s death as the anti-party: anti-civil rights, anti-gay, anti-immigration, anti-choice. Robinson saw this coming. “I felt the GOP was a minority party in terms 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,” he wrote in his autobiography.
This is the challenge the GOP now faces. After his playing days were over, Robinson the businessman esteemed success. He probably would have respected Mitt Romney’s professional accomplishments. Yet I have no doubt that Jackie Robinson, the Republican, would have supported Barack Obama, the Democratic community organizer whose economic principles are so far from Robinson’s own.
Race would have played only a part in this. Mostly, it would have been because Republicans have made it hard to imagine that a man like Robinson could be one of them. You can be a black Republican today, but it’s complicated.