First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson BY Michael G. Long. Times Books. Hardcover, 384 pages. $26.

The cover of First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson

I guess we really live for good writeups, but
not at the sacrifice of our principles.

—Jackie Robinson to Caroline
Wallerstein, January 3, 1956

It is clear that by the time Jackie Robinson’s final autobiography, I Never Had It Made, appeared, in 1972, the year he died, he saw himself as more than a star athlete. Over half the book is devoted to his career after baseball, when he became something of a black man of affairs or, in the tradition of black propagandists like Hubert H. Harrison and W. E. B. DuBois, a professional race man. Robinson might have nailed across his office door the motto UPLIFT THE RACE as a succinct expression of his sense of mission, a reformist zeal that perhaps he acquired from his ten years in the major leagues (1947–56), not to mention from being the first black man in the twentieth century to play in the Show. But his loneliness, his isolation, if you will, seems both poignant and deeply frightening, which only serves to underscore how socially transformative his presence was meant to be. After all, the peculiar burden he bore as a ballplayer required that he be not only an extraordinary athlete, which he was, but a race missionary. This sense of mission as an engaged public figure, as a man who spoke on behalf of his race and who, in some ways, tried to shape its collective interest, has certainly made him, if not unique, then unusual in the annals of retired black athletes.

What most people know of Jackie Robinson is the first two years he played baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, during which he was forced to adopt the posture of a martyr by not responding to racist taunts, bean balls, bad calls, and generally unsportsmanlike conduct by his opponents. A highly competitive man by nature, as most star athletes are, and, as a black man, very proud to boot, with something of a temper, he thought his behavior in those years made him a “freak.” It was extremely difficult, this Negro-sufferer business, combined with the intense pressure of performing. But it is this sacrificial, nearly saintly Robinson who largely enlivened the Robinson/Christ myth, almost as if what he endured during his first years as a Dodger were tantamount to dying for America’s racial sins on the cross of the baseball diamond. This “unnatural” Robinson was largely and famously the idea of Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ general manager, who engineered Robinson’s breakthrough. It crystallized the idea that Robinson was a cultural hero in terms that white Americans, when thinking about blacks as heroes, could understand and respect, by making whites feel good and guilty at the same time about his forbearance. Today, although he is virtually canonized, he is probably even more misunderstood and, in some ways, unknown than he ever was during his lifetime, when people fussed with him about his politics and saw him as a real person, not a transcendent icon or a holy lamb of American democracy.

In First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson, Michael G. Long brings together not only an extraordinary set of documents by and about the postbaseball Robinson but, through these letters, an extraordinary account of the times, principally the 1960s. That Robinson, essentially a conventional liberal with a conservative demeanor, should have lived through this period of violent change is important for those of us who wish to understand the connection between politics and sports, as his being the type of sports hero he was granted him the right to speak in the political arena.

Robinson corresponded with four presidents and most of the major civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Ralph Abernathy. He wrote to and received letters from Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, New York mayor John Lindsay, and Malcolm X. He knew the movers and shakers of the period. In 1957, he became vice president of personnel at Chock Full o’Nuts, “a chain of coffee shops owned by William Black and staffed mostly by African Americans,” Long writes. In 1964, he left the company and became deputy national director of Nelson Rockefeller’s failed presidential campaign. Eventually, he became a special assistant to Rockefeller in his capacity as governor of New York. Among Robinson’s business ventures was the founding of the Freedom National Bank in ’64. The bank did not succeed, much to Robinson’s disappointment, as he was a firm believer in what was then called “black capitalism,” a formulation that seemed not only quixotic but utterly oxymoronic to African Americans on the left.

But it was Robinson’s career as a newspaper columnist, first for the New York Post and then for the New York Amsterdam News, that brought his views to the attention of the general public and made him a polemicist, an occupation he seemed to enjoy. Long notes that the playwright William Branch wrote Robinson’s column for the Post, and Alfred Duckett, a public-relations expert, wrote it for the Amsterdam News. Moreover, “Duckett also helped Robinson to craft letters, and his handwork is especially detectable in the rhetorical flourishes of several letters from 1963 onward.” Apparently, it was fairly common knowledge that Robinson used ghosts; in a heated exchange in 1967, NAACP head Roy Wilkins responded snidely when accused by Robinson of letting an underling sign a letter for him: “What I write I write—letters, statements, columns and what have you.” There was always a problem with Robinson as a public voice; the ghostwriting seemed to undermine the very honesty and clarity on which he prided himself.

Some early correspondence shows Robinson expressing his concerns to politicians. In letters to Maxwell Rabb, secretary to President Eisenhower’s cabinet, and to New York governor Averell Harriman, both written before his retirement, he respectively sought federal help in supporting a New York City housing project for African Americans and requested that a civil rights activist, accused of assaulting a white man, not be extradited to South Carolina. But it is in 1957 that Robinson’s letters begin to criticize and challenge. Robinson claimed to be neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but he was most famously associated with the latter party, at a time when most blacks had gone over to the former. He supported Nixon for president in 1960 over Kennedy, whom he believed had made a deal with white southern segregationist Democrats to get the nomination. (He came to like Kennedy better once he was president but could never forgive brother Robert for defeating liberal New York Republican Kenneth Keating for the US Senate.) Supporting Nixon, never a particularly popular figure with blacks, hurt Robinson; some, like Malcolm X, used the Nixon endorsement as a pretext to remind those blacks who never forgave or forgot of Robinson’s testimony against Paul Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949. Malcolm made a point of bringing this up in a contentious letter he wrote to Robinson in 1963: “It was you who let yourself be used by the whites even in those days against your own kind. You let them sic you on Paul Robeson.”

Robinson supported Rockefeller for the Republican nomination in 1968, as well as 1964. But Robinson was not a conservative (nor was Rockefeller). Robinson wanted to create a coalition between blacks and white liberals. But he was always wary of southern Democrats, which is why he never joined that party, although he did campaign for Hubert Humphrey for the presidency in 1968. He greatly feared that the Republican Party would become the new “white man’s party.” He sensed the coming of the Southern Strategy, which would serve white Republican candidates so well in the 1970s and 1980s, and he worked hard for Rockefeller to forestall it, but in the end, the Republican Party effectively cleansed itself of liberalism.

Robinson’s letters are richly varied—there are arguments with Powell, whom Robinson thought had gone to seed and simply become a debauched opportunist and demagogue; praise and support for Lyndon Johnson’s presidency because Johnson pushed such a strong civil rights agenda; puzzlement over King’s denunciation of the Vietnam War (Robinson rightly wondered why King accepted without question the Marxist view of the war, and of America as the Great Satan of international politics). All of this reveals a man who was truly concerned about his country and took the responsibilities of citizenship and fame seriously. Robinson found himself with the difficult tasks of defending liberalism by walking a tightrope between two political parties in transition and of defending integration as the last, best hope for racial peace in the United States, when everyone seemed to have given up on it in a universal rage of black cynicism and white betrayal. Despite his faults and shortcomings, Robinson wanted to be a grown-up in an infantile world. That aspiration is not only a virtue but also a rarity.

Gerald Early is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in Saint Louis.