Was Jackie Robinson A Hero or a Sell-Out?

This is not a review of 42, the new film about Jackie Robinson.   I haven’t seen it.  Neither has Your Black World columnist, Yvette Carnell, but that didn’t slow her down from ripping Robinson as a snitch and sell-out.

For those who don’t know, Jackie Robinson testified against black activist and artist Paul Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee, backed Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy, backed the Vietnam War, and even questioned the patriotism of Dr. Martin Luther King when he announced his opposition to the war. This is who Jackie Robinson was. For him, it was the white man’s way or no way.

For some, celebrating Jackie Robinson’s integration into baseball boils down to the idea that blacks needed to be liked by even the most racist whites in order to have any real shot at the American dream. So to them, it was acceptable for Robinson to do whatever it took, even if it meant going so far as to unleash the Congressional hounds on Robeson, as long as it ensured that the doors to white baseball were opened to Robinson.

I don’t buy into the notion that black people must be redeemed in the eyes of whites in order to progress, mostly because it places far too much power in the hands of racist whites and leaves blacks in a tenuous position, both psychologically and economically.

Saddest of all though is the idea that many black folk who went to see ’42′ will not only view Jackie Robinson’s integration as a grand success, without ever bothering to consider the human consequence, but that they will undoubtedly view the movie’s box office success as some sort of win. How is that possible? How is it possible to consider the movie’s box office success a win for anyone except those who benefit from the movie’s revenue? Simple: Since there is no real black movement or black leadership in this country, black people latch onto whatever symbolism they can as a way of giving themselves an emotional victory, even if it’s largely a product of their own imagination.

I don’t know if Carnell knows anything baseball, but she sure doesn’t know anything about Jackie Robinson.  You can read the rest of Carnell’s epic nonsense here.

Carnell: Doesn’t know Jackie Robinson but doesn’t let that stop her.

This isn’t about why one person didn’t want to see 42.  Who gives a damn?    What we should be talking about is what Carnell’s essay is really about: in the battle between Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson, who ya got?   This is like a rap beef and either you’re on Team Robinson or Team Robeson.

My take is it is easy to sit here in 2013 and pass judgment on what Robinson did in 1949.   It was a different time then and Robeson, an avowed Socialist who was effusive in his praise of the Soviet Union incited fears that he would influence Negroes to support Communism.  Robinson, who was politically conservative, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee to refute that belief.   We can say he was wrong to do so as Carnell does, but she leaves out that in his 1973 autobiography “I Never Had It Made,” Robinson reveals both his regrets about his testimony and his respect for Robeson.

“However, in those days I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today. I would reject such an invitation if offered now . . . . I have grown wiser and closer to the painful truths about America’s destructiveness. And I do have increased respect for Paul Robeson who, over the span of twenty years, sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.”

We can always look at someone else through the comfortable distance of history and say “Jackie Robinson? Big deal.” But Robinson was politically a conservative and though he hated American racism he loved America. When he threw Paul Robeson to the House Un-American Activities Committee he did so because he thought Robeson, who was at least a Socialist and quite possibly a Communist, was harmful to both the country and Negroes as a whole.

Carnell is so eager to demagogue Robinson as a symbol of Black appeasement she misses the part of his life when he stood as a symbol of Black resistance to segregation.   When Robinson was in the Army, he faced a court-martial when he  challenged the racist status quo in an action that preceded Rosa Parks by refusing to give up his seat on the bus.

On July 6, 1944, exactly one month after D-day—assault landings in which black soldiers had participated—Lieutenant Robinson was forcibly reminded of how thoroughly Jim Crow still dominated the scene. As he was returning that evening to the hospital, Southwestern Bus Company driver Milton Reneger brusquely instructed the lieutenant to move to a seat farther back from the one where he sat next to a fellow officer’s light-skinned wife. Robinson, perhaps conscious of being an officer and a husky one at that, refused, suggesting that the driver tend to driving instead.

Later, at his stop, Robinson and the driver continued to argue, joined by the latter’s bus dispatcher, Beverly Younger, who casually referred to Robinson in his presence as “a nigger.” When military policemen arrived at the scene, a crowd of indignant whites, both civilian and military, had formed, adding to turmoil and confusion. The MPs on site, none of whom outranked the lieutenant, asked him to go with them to the police headquarters to straighten out the situation. He agreed to do so. However, when they arrived at the station to meet with the camp’s assistant provost marshal, a white MP ran up to the vehicle and excitedly inquired if they had “the nigger lieutenant” with them. The utterance of this unexpected and especially offensive racial epithet served to set Robinson off and he threatened “to break in two” anyone, whatever their rank or status, who employed that word.

Robeson and Robinson’s differing beliefs led to conflict between the two.

As far as Uncle Toms go, Robinson was a lousy one.  Robinson’s politics were conservative, but he stood up time and again as a proud Black man.  He was eventually found “not guilty” by the military that was cowed in part by the Black press to rally public support for the man who broke baseball’s color line.

While his testimony against Robeson was a bad call by Robinson it has to be judged in historical context.  Carnell’s article  doesn’t even try to  and is nothing more than Blacker-than-Thou historical revisionism.   It’s easy to give the back of the hand to a movie you haven’t seen and even easier to dismiss the accomplishments of a man who put up with more racist hatred based upon the color of his skin than his critics could ever fathom.

I could take Carnell’s criticisms a lot more seriously if she had bothered to actually see the movie.  Instead she just crapped on it because Robinson talked smack about Robeson. Okay, she can do that but that is a lazy way for any writer to take a shortcut and Carnell takes a baseball bat to Robinson’s reputation that isn’t simply lazy, it’s historically inaccurate.

We don’t have to be grateful to Jackie Robinson, but why trash him because he took a controversial and unpopular position that at the time actually may have made sense?  Or is it that the socialist  Robeson is a hipper figure with the bourgeois Black intelligentsia than the conservative  Robinson?

Carnell should bothered to present a more balanced picture of Robinson.   Instead, she plows past any information that runs counter to her depiction of Robinson as a cartoon Uncle Tom.   That’s her right, but it’s not fair, it’s not balanced and it’s not even credible.

Was Robinson a true hero or a craven sell-out.  The answer is he was simply a man.  A man with enormous courage and character whose reputation endures unsullied by a few obscure critics who don’t understand baseball and what Jackie Robinson did for America’s racial evolution.

Robinson’s accomplishments will be remembered long after his critics are forgotten.