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Fields of battle

First Class Citizenship The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson; Edited by Michael G. Long; Times Books: 362 pp., $26

September 30, 2007|Mark Lamster | Mark Lamster is writing a book about the political career of Peter Paul Rubens.

Whatever their political differences, America's two most prominent civil rights figures, Robinson and King, held each other in mutual high esteem. In addition to his fundraising for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, Robinson made it a point to stump for King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "I don't know what we would have done throughout these past years without your ardent support and interest," King wrote to Robinson after an SCLC dinner in October 1964. "[I]t pleases me to say that you have continued to give the kind of leadership throughout your career that we are proud to be identified with. This is certainly an important contribution to mankind as a whole and especially to Negro people, who too often must see their heroes of their youth tarnished by selfish compromises and mediocre judgment."

There were those who saw only compromise and poor judgment. During his ball-playing days, letters from white racists were frequent. Now, he was the target of black militants. In an open letter published in November 1963, Malcolm X wrote: "I sincerely fear, good Friend Jackie, that if the whites do murder you, you are still gullible enough to die thinking they are still your white friends, and that the dagger in your back is only an accident!" Robinson replied with characteristic dignity: "I reject your racist views. . . . I shall always be happy to associate myself with decent Americans of either race who believe in justice for all."

Robinson refused to surrender his moral authority, even as his erstwhile political allies lost theirs. He wrote Nixon a disillusioned letter in 1972. "[Y]ou are polarizing this country to such an extent there can be no turning back. . . ," he admonished. "I hope you will take another look at where we are going and be the president who leads the nation to accept difficult but necessary action, rather than one who fosters division."

Robinson died a few months later. At the time, he was less than sanguine about the nation's future. "I cannot possibly believe that I have made it while so many black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity as they live in slums or barely exist on welfare," he wrote in his autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," published that same year.

The Jackie Robinson story didn't come with the happiest of endings. Perhaps that's its most important lesson.

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