By Vernon A. Williams
Jackie Robinson wasn’t just a pioneer in sports – breaking the color barrier in professional baseball. He was also one of the most articulate and courageous sports figures ever to protest social injustices in America. That made him even more of an object of scorn than he was already.
Seventy years ago this week, in 1949, right-wing and segregationist members of Congress orchestrated a confrontation between the two most popular Black athletes. Robinson and Paul Robeson. It was a divide and conquer plot.
White media eagerly awaited a confrontation that would help drive a wedge between two of the most admired Black Americans as a precursor to use their clash to contrast philosophical differences between capitalism and communism.
Robinson was invited to testify by Congressman John Wood, a Georgia Democrat and arch segregationist, who previously was an avowed member of the Ku Klux Klan. Wood chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He invited Robinson to address a hearing on “Communist infiltration of minority groups.”
Wood wanted Robinson to lambast Robeson for his outspoken critique of America. He wanted Robinson to brand Robeson as a Communist sympathizer whose views were in sharp contrast with most African Americans.
The hearing was prompted by a statement that Robeson made earlier that year at a conference. Reporters ignored the part of his remarks that assured listeners that all Americans found the thought of going to war with Russia repugnant. Instead, they focused exclusively on his position that African Americans would be reluctant to fight in such a war.
Robeson said, “It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.”
At the time, Robeson was at the height of his fame. Born in 1898 to a former runaway slave, he had starred in four sports at Rutgers, was twice named to the football All-American team, won Rutgers’ oratory award four years in a row, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and was valedictorian of his 1919 graduating class.
Robeson was a man of impeccable principle, also a defiant activist. He gave free concerts for left-wing unions and progressive causes. He refused to perform in roles that demeaned African Americans. He challenged President Harry Truman to support an anti-lynching law, which earned Robeson the NAACP Spingarn Medal, its highest honor.
Robinson didn’t agree with Robeson’s friendly position on Communism, but he admired his lifetime of activism. He would not be used. “I didn’t want to fall prey to the white man’s game and allow myself to be pitted against another Black man,” he later wrote. “I knew that Robeson was striking out against racial inequality” in his own way.
While politically opposed to Robeson’s philosophy, Robinson was careful not to demonize his brother, acknowledging their common goal of liberty and justice for all. He said Robeson “has a right to his personal views, and if he wants to sound silly when he expresses them in public, that is his business and not mine. He’s still a famous ex-athlete and a great singer.”
What if celebrities and Blacks in similar positions of power, influence and visibility decided that beginning today, they would commit more time, resources and energy to our common plight? The problems facing Black America would be alleviated and opportunities would expand.
It can happen.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society.Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.