"I Never Had It Made," The Real Jackie Robinson Story
On April 15, President Clinton will step onto the playing field at New York's Shea Stadium and stand at second base with Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson. They will be there to honor the 50th anniversary of Robinson's smashing major league baseball's color barrier.Before a nationally televised game, Clinton will salute Robinson's memory and tell the world how his towering accomplishment permanently enriched American sport and society.Clinton will be right. But 50 years ago, when Robinson stood at second base for his first game in the majors, he was "uneasy" and less than hopeful about changing American attitudes toward blacks. And 25 years after that day, Robinson's uneasiness had become bitter doubt. In his autobiography, "I Never Had It Made,' he declared unapologetically, "I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world. I never had it made."As this year goes on, there will be loads of romanticized testimonials about Robinson's baseball story. But there will probably be little about his story in the world outside baseball -- a story Robinson himself told in his autobiography, letters, and columns in the New York Post and the Amsterdam News.o Americanism. In 1949, the black singer and activist Paul Robeson made an ill-timed (and much distorted) statement that blacks were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Robinson was pressed to testify and refute Robeson before the witch-hunting House UnAmerican Activities Committee.Robinson appeared but refused to be used as a black pawn to attack Robeson. In his testimony, he opposed communism but also criticized the committee for its "partisan politics," and fiercely attacked racial discrimination.Years later, he wrote that he did not regret testifying -- but later explained that he had agreed to speak only because "In those days, I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today."o Black organizations. Robinson gave speeches and helped raise funds for the NAACP and contributed generously himself, becoming a member of its board of directors. But he resigned in 1967, accusing the board of being "insensitive to the trends of our times, unresponsive to the needs and aims of the black masses -- especially the young," adding "more and more they seem to reflect a refined sophisticated, 'Yessir-Mistah-Charlie' point of view." His criticism foreshadowed identical charges that would nearly wreck the NAACP almost two decades later.o Politics. Many blacks called Robinson an "Uncle Tom," and a sellout for supporting Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. But Robinson's sole litmus test was support of civil rights. "I was not beholden to any political party," he wrote. "I was black first." And the Nixon of 1960 was the man who, as Eisenhower's vice president, had fought vigorously for major civil rights bills while the Kennedy of 1960 had voted to water down a section of the 1957 civil rights bill and had actively courted racist Southern Democrats.In the campaign, Robinson promised "I'll be right back to give him hell" if his candidate betrayed him on civil rights. He was good as his word, openly denouncing the mean-spiritedness of Nixon and his party.o Economic empowerment. Before self-help and economic empowerment became buzz words for blacks, Robinson staked his reputation on making it a reality. He became board chairman of the black-controlled Freedom Bank, which made loans and investments in black areas.When the bank ran into serious management and solvency problems, Robinson worked hard to keep it afloat on the grounds that "There were two keys to the advancement of blacks in America -- the ballot and the buck. If we organized our political and economic strength we would have a much easier fight on our hands."o Baseball. Even this turned sour. In 1972, Robinson refused to attend an old-timers' game and accused owners of running a "big, selfish business," for refusing to hire blacks as managers, coaches and front office executives. He would certainly not be cheered to know that blacks are still woefully underrepresented in these positions.Robinson got a big break -- as the man picked to smash the color barrier, he was courted by politicians, showered with personal honors, and enjoyed a measure of financial success.But at the end of his life, he remarked "I can't believe that I have it made while so many of my black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity, live in slums or barely exist on welfare."That is why Robinson insisted -- and would have to insist today -- "I never had it made."