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Jackie Robinson and JFK on civil rights: Two men divided by a common country

The baseball hero pushed and pleaded with the president to act

John F. Kennedy was sailing through the 1960 presidential primaries on his way to the Democratic nomination. But he had a problem: A majority of African-Americans were not voting for him. His young aide, Ted Sorensen, was blunt about blacks’ feelings toward the candidate. “Many are distrustful,” he warned in a memo. “Some are suspicious, some are bitterly opposed, few are enthusiastic.”

Blacks had reason for wariness. As the suave senator from Massachusetts had neared the launch of his presidential campaign, he sought to ingratiate himself with a crucial constituency: segregationist Southern whites. In 1959, for instance, he invited Alabama Gov. John Patterson, a virulent racist, to breakfast at his Georgetown home. When the governor emerged from the private parley, he endorsed Kennedy for president, calling him “a friend of the South.” Blacks wondered whether a secret deal had been struck: What promises had Kennedy made about segregation to gain Southern support?

One prominent American in particular was infuriated by Kennedy’s weak record on civil rights. Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in baseball’s major leagues, had become a blunt voice for racial justice since his retirement in 1956. As Kennedy set his sights on the White House, the two men wrangled over the pace of progress. Kennedy, who was born a hundred years ago last month, was hesitant to commit fully to civil rights, fearing a backlash from powerful Southern senators. Robinson berated him in a face-to-face meeting and in tough-minded newspaper columns in the New York Post. Only when President Kennedy had a historic change of heart just months before his assassination did Robinson relent and praise his contributions to civil rights. Indeed, Robinson found much to admire in Kennedy’s transformation.

But that goodwill was long in coming. During the 1960 campaign, the former baseball star not only disparaged Kennedy, he declared his affection for the senator’s opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon. The Nixon-Robinson relationship had deep roots. When the two men first met during the 1952 Republican National Convention, Nixon congratulated the Brooklyn Dodgers ballplayer on a home run he’d hit that day against the Chicago Cubs, and the pair formed an instant bond. Robinson’s fondness for Nixon was in keeping with a tradition among blacks: Ever since Republican Abraham Lincoln had emancipated the slaves, blacks had largely favored the GOP. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Depression started to peel away that support, but many blacks still identified with the party of Lincoln.

Nixon and Robinson had both grown up in Southern California, and Nixon, astonishingly, recalled during that first chat together a football play that Robinson had made in a game in 1939 when he was at UCLA. Robinson also appreciated Nixon’s civil rights stance. He wrote to the vice president in 1957, praising him for speaking out on the issue during a trip to Africa. In a speech in Ethiopia, Nixon had declared: “We shall never be satisfied … until … equal opportunity becomes a reality for all Americans,” prompting Robinson to offer: “In this endeavor you have my best wishes and steadfast cooperation.”

In 1956, Robinson had been a strong advocate of the Dwight Eisenhower-Nixon ticket, but he became disillusioned with President Eisenhower’s weak commitment to civil rights. As the 1960 presidential campaign neared, he leaned toward the Democrats — but only on the condition that their nominee was committed to civil rights. In a December 1959 column, he laid down his challenge: “If it should come to a choice between a weak and indecisive Democratic nominee and Vice President Nixon, I, for one, would enthusiastically support Nixon.”

In the primaries, Robinson backed Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey, who had a long-demonstrated, unwavering support for civil rights. To Robinson’s chagrin, Kennedy thumped Humphrey in Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. But Kennedy’s weakness among blacks was apparent. In Wisconsin, he lost by 3-2 margins in the predominantly black wards of Milwaukee. Analyzing the Wisconsin vote, Jet magazine pointed out, “Sen. Kennedy won the war, but lost the racial battle.” Recognizing Kennedy’s momentum, Robinson vowed in his column: “I must repeat my own determination to look elsewhere for a candidate should Kennedy capture the Democratic nomination.”

In an attempt to charm – and quiet – Robinson, Kennedy set up a meeting in Washington with the baseball hero a few weeks before the Democratic National Convention. At first, as Robinson biographer Arnold Rampersad recounts, the conversation was courteous and candid. But Robinson was offended when the senator admitted that he knew few blacks and had much to learn about the suffering of America’s 20 million African-Americans. “Although I appreciated his truthfulness in the matter,” Robinson said later, “I was appalled that he could be so ignorant of our situation and be bidding for the highest office in the land.”

From there the first meeting between the two men deteriorated: Robinson condemned Kennedy for his apparent friendship with Patterson. Eager to make amends, Kennedy asked Robinson what it would take to win his support. But Robinson misinterpreted him and became incensed, believing the wealthy candidate wanted to buy him off. “Look, Senator,” he told Kennedy, “I don’t want any of your money. I’m just interested in helping the candidate who I think will be best for black America.” To make matters worse, Robinson was sure that during the meeting Kennedy refused to look him in the eye — further evidence, he thought, of the senator’s insincerity.

Afterward, Kennedy wrote a long letter to Robinson, praising him for his civil rights efforts, stressing his own desire “for an end to all discrimination” and reiterating the innocence of his meeting with Patterson. In a reply five days later, Robinson said he needed “more evidence regarding your sincerity in these matters,” but he was “willing to wait and see what develops at the convention and what you do if nominated.” Robinson, apparently, was still ticked off about one aspect of their encounter. “Please don’t consider me presumptuous but I would like to make one suggestion,” he wrote. “While trying to impress anyone with your sincerity you must be able to look them squarely in the eye.”

Although still offended, Robinson toned down his public criticism. In his New York Post column of July 6, 1960, he described Kennedy as an “impressive man” who had a “willingness to learn,” then added grudgingly: “Sen. Kennedy is a little late in seeking to make himself clear, after 14 years in Congress. But if he is sincere, there is still time to catch up.”

At the convention later that month in Los Angeles, Kennedy won the Democratic nomination. After the Republicans nominated Nixon a few days later in Chicago, Robinson announced that he believed the vice president was “better qualified” and “more aggressive on civil rights” than Kennedy. He signed on to campaign for Nixon, taking a leave of absence from his executive position at the coffee shop chain Chock Full O’Nuts and suspending his New York Post column.

With a tight election expected, the black vote was seen as significant. By one estimate, black voters could deliver victories in New York, Pennsylvania, California, Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, which together accounted for 181 electoral votes out of the 267 votes needed to win. “Just how important is the Negro voter?” asked the Chicago Defender. “All you have to do is study the statistical data to understand the frenzy now being shown in both parties as they seek to curry his favor.”

As Election Day neared, a high-profile arrest created an opportunity for both candidates to demonstrate their commitment to the African-American community. On Oct. 19, less than three weeks before the election, Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned after a sit-in at an Atlanta department store restaurant. A racist judge asserted that King’s arrest violated his probation on a minor traffic citation and sentenced the civil rights leader to four months in a maximum-security prison.

King’s situation posed a dilemma for both candidates. Neither one wanted to alienate white Southern voters by speaking out on King’s behalf. But to do nothing was to miss a chance to galvanize black voters in both the North and South.

Republican strategists concluded the best course of action was silence. When pressed, Nixon issued a terse “no comment” through his press secretary. He held fast to his decision even after a personal plea from Robinson. According to William Safire, then a Nixon campaign aide and later a New York Times columnist, Robinson had a 10-minute meeting with Nixon and came out with “tears of frustration in his eyes.” Complaining bitterly, he told Safire: “He thinks calling Martin would be ‘grandstanding.’ ” As biographer Rampersad recounted, Robinson was so distraught he declared: “Nixon doesn’t deserve to win.” Yet, the baseball star continued to support his election.

The Kennedy campaign, by contrast, flew into action. Both John and Robert worked back channels, the former secretly phoning Georgia’s governor and the latter getting the judge on the line. In a public show of compassion, Sen. Kennedy phoned King’s wife, Coretta, to express his sympathy. Under pressure, the judge released King.

When news of Kennedy’s call to Coretta King hit the press, the effect was electrifying: African-American newspapers across the country praised Kennedy’s action, endorsed his candidacy and attacked Nixon for his silence. On Election Day, Kennedy eked out a victory thanks in part to a wave of black support. A Gallup Poll estimated that 70 percent of black voters turned out for Kennedy. African-American leaders claimed that the black community put Kennedy over the top in 11 states.

If blacks were grateful to Kennedy for his compassion, the new president now faced massive expectations to reciprocate by listening to their leaders and hearing their cries for equality. But once in office, Kennedy turned his attention to other matters: He had an ambitious domestic agenda focused on taxes, unemployment, Social Security, wages and housing, and he confronted dangerous foreign challenges with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Civil rights was not a priority. If Kennedy pursued racial justice, he risked losing the support of Southern senators for his other measures. Robinson, along with King and others, pressured the president, but he remained ambivalent.

In April 1962, Kennedy showed a rare bit of public rage when the nation’s steel manufacturers raised prices, threatening inflation; the president intervened forcefully and persuaded the companies to roll back the increases. His bold action prompted a strong response from Robinson. In an open letter to the president in the New York Amsterdam News, he wrote: “One thing is sure. You were definite. You were strong in your stand and you displayed a flash of anger and spunk which many people admired.” Then Robinson pivoted to civil rights: “Mr. President, don’t you believe that the explosive situation in the South and the sneaky, covered up prejudices in the North are as damaging to the public interest, to democracy and to world peace as a $6 raise in steel prices?” Why, Robinson wanted to know, hadn’t the president shown the same passion over the injustices heaped daily on blacks in America? Didn’t the president believe, Robinson asked, that first-class citizenship for blacks was in the best interests of our democracy?

“Without meaning to be impertinent, Mr. President, we have a suggestion,” Robinson said. He advised the president to go off somewhere alone and think about racial prejudice until he got as angry as he was about steel prices. Then the president could channel his fury into “the battle against the bigots in this country who are working harder to destroy it from within than any foreign power is working to destroy it from without.” Robinson wanted the president to inject some passion into the fight for civil rights. “Why Mr. President,” he urged, “why don’t you get angry again?”

What was barely evident to many people in America, however, was that Kennedy was evolving. His progress was slow, but the president was gradually gaining an understanding of discrimination and an empathy for the plight of black Americans.

With growing impatience, the president quelled a riot over the admission of the first black student to the University of Mississippi in September 1962. Elsewhere, churches were burned and civil rights activists were murdered. In the spring of 1963, waves of protesters took to the streets to desegregate public facilities in Birmingham, Alabama. Local authorities responded by attacking men, women and children with police dogs and fire hoses.

Along with others, Robinson challenged the president to act. “The pace at which our country is moving toward total equality for all peoples is miserably slow,” he wrote in a letter to Kennedy after the unrest in Birmingham. “The “atrocities” inflicted on blacks in the South were “disgusting,” he added, noting: “The revolution that is taking place in this country cannot be squelched by police dogs or high power hoses.” He then raised a sensitive point for the president: perceptions of America overseas, particularly in Africa, where some nations had recently achieved independence. Quoting a news report from Ghana that said, “America’s greatness is meaningless as long as racial discrimination continues,” Robinson asked: “How can those newly formed governments of Africa possibly be expected to emulate our way of life” when brutal conditions exist in Alabama?

The police actions in Birmingham disgusted Kennedy. Adding to his frustrations, Gov. George Wallace that summer blocked the admission of two black students to the University of Alabama by standing in the schoolhouse door. Rejecting Wallace’s dramatics, Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and sent troops to the campus to ensure the students were enrolled.

With that, the president had finally had enough. On the evening of June 11, 1963, he went on television and spoke to the nation. After 2 1/2 years and much hesitation, he found his voice on civil rights. In 13 minutes, Kennedy emerged as America’s first civil rights president.

Seated at his desk in the Oval Office, the president asked the nation to take a lesson from the scenes in Alabama. He challenged Americans to be better, drawing on words that were in many ways about his own journey: “I hope that every American, regardless of where he lives, will stop and examine his conscience about this and other related incidents.” He reminded his listeners that America “was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Robinson, so long a critic of the president, watched the address and heard much that appealed to him. “If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public,” Kennedy continued, “if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?”

The president then told the nation that he intended to introduce legislation that would in effect dismantle America’s institutional discrimination.

After long doubting Kennedy’s commitment, Robinson revised his opinion. He sent a glowing telegram to the White House. “Thank you for emerging as the most forthright President we have ever had and for providing us with the inspired leadership that we so desperately needed,” Robinson wrote. “I am more proud than ever of my American heritage.”

In a column drafted the following day for the New York Amsterdam News, Robinson went public with his praise. “As an American citizen,” he began, “I am deeply proud of our President. In my opinion, the address which Mr. Kennedy made to the American people on the color question is one of the finest declarations ever issued in the cause of human rights.” Robinson reminded readers of his earlier criticism, then acknowledged: “I must state now that I believe the President has come through with statesmanship, with courage, with wisdom and absolute sincerity,” and he added that Kennedy had now done everything Robinson hoped he would do.

The two men now had a new foundation for optimism and respect. But their relationship had little time to blossom. Just five months later, Kennedy was dead.

When Robinson heard of the president’s assassination, he reminded his readers of his appreciation for what Kennedy brought to the fight for civil rights. “I gasped with disbelief,” he wrote in a column in the New York Amsterdam News, “that here in America in 1963, a president could be murdered simply because he was a man of courageous conviction.” He noted that “this was a man whom I often criticized,” yet Kennedy had “done more for the civil rights cause than any other president.” Indeed, Robinson felt remorse for his badgering of the president on civil rights, even referring to him as “a noble man.”

In his column, he revealed just how much his perception of Kennedy had changed. “In these last few months,” Robinson admitted, “I have felt a deep admiration for the courage of Mr. Kennedy, so much so that one of his top aides said to me recently: ‘Jack, you are certainly in his corner now, aren’t you?’ ”

Steven Levingston is nonfiction editor of The Washington Post and author of “Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights,” which will be published on June 6.