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What the Jackie Robinson Film Leaves Out

'42' doesn't touch on his conservative politics, which are widely misunderstood

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The 24-hour news cycle yielded one of its better sitcom interludes last week when Rand Paul went to Howard University, the historically black college, to tell its student body why it needed the Republican Party. The libertarian junior senator from Kentucky, at one point, asked for a show-of-hands from those who knew that most of the African Americans who founded the NAACP more than 100 years ago were Republican. When several dozen hands shot up, Paul insisted he wasn’t condescending to them, saying, “I don’t know what you know.” You won’t get a better title for this sitcom than that.

I wonder what would happen if you administered a similar quiz to a more demographically diverse multiplex audience after a screening of 42, Brian Helgeland’s rousing biopic about Jackie Robinson. How many would know that Robinson was a lifelong Republican? A few hands might go up, most from history geeks and older persons who’d brought their grandchildren to the movie. Then again, the story of Jackie Robinson’s post-baseball life is, to say the least, less triumphant than the one told by Helgeland’s movie. As Roger Kahn wrote in his classic 1972 book about the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, Robinson’s career as a political activist “trails off into disappointments and conditional sentences.”

But whose fault was that? It’s become axiomatic to regard Robinson as being, at best, naïve for lending his support to the Republican Party, from Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election to Nelson Rockefeller’s thwarted presidential ambitions in 1968. But neither I Never Had It Made, Robinson’s rueful, still-illuminating memoir also published in 1972 (the year of his death at 53) nor First-Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson, collected, edited, and published in 2007 by Michael G. Long, depict a malleable, credulous man. If anything, Robinson sounds as tough-minded and combative in the political arena as he was running base paths in National League ballparks—though he was far more open-minded (and just a little shrewder) than the ideologues criticizing him from both ends of the political spectrum.

Consider his willingness to make public appearances on Nixon’s behalf in 1960 at stump seeches and rallies throughout the country. As Eisenhower’s vice-president, Nixon at least seemed more intent than his boss was on promoting African American rights in the late 1950s. Nixon was even courting the support of Martin Luther King Jr. for his party’s version of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. Nixon, King wrote a year later, “almost disarms you with his apparent sincerity.” If he weren’t sincere, King added, “he is the most dangerous man in America.”

Robinson, in his letters and memoir, reveals a similar admiration for Nixon’s ability to charm and disarm. “Whatever you may think of the man personally, he is a consummate political animal,” he wrote. He seems to wonder at one initial meeting whether the vice president is pretending on the phone to have a dust-up with Eisenhower. (“It had the feel of a cheap trick” Robinson wrote.) Nevertheless, Robinson was being just as pragmatic about his support of Nixon as Nixon was about his overtures to Robinson. Back then, many African Americans were still keeping faith with the Party of Lincoln believing, as Robinson did, that the Democratic Party would never commit itself to civil rights as long as it retained white segregationists. Robinson also couldn’t bring himself to trust John F. Kennedy, who, as he describes in his memoir, couldn’t look him eye-to-eye in their initial meeting. It sounds trivial—and ironic, given Nixon’s own shifty-eyed public image. Yet it suggests how much JFK still had to learn back then about dealing directly with people of color. Expecting people to be straight with you is naiveté. Insisting that they be straight with you is something else.

Though Robinson regretted that Nixon was slower than Kennedy to intervene when King was sentenced to a four-year jail term in Georgia on misdemeanor charges, he insisted for some time afterwards that he was correct in supporting Nixon that year. It was, after allamong other things, his duty to his people to hold the GOP’s feet to the fire when it came to race relations. “It would make everything I worked for meaningless if baseball is integrated but political parties were segregated,” Robinson told Kahn. Still, by the end of his life, he believed that backing Nixon in 1960 was not “one of my finer [decisions].”

Robinson was disturbed, though barely surprised, when four years later, the GOP made a hard-right shift to nominate Barry Goldwater for president. Two years before, Goldwater, who’d broken ranks with his fellow conservative Republican senator Everett Dirksen in opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, urged his party to stop trying to woo black voters and instead “go hunting where the ducks are”—meaning the party should recruit disaffected, southern Democrats. Robinson joined the national headquarters of “Republicans for Johnson” in New York and went on the road and in the media to demand that Goldwater be “overwhelmingly repudiated.”

When Nixon ran again for president in 1968, his alliance with the old Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond was crucial to sealing his nomination. By this time, Robinson had become closely affiliated with Rockefeller and had worked on his successful gubernatorial campaigns and unsuccessful presidential bids in ’64 and ’68. Robinson spoke in the fall of 1968 on behalf of Hubert Humphrey, who, because of his unequivocal, long-term support for civil rights, would have gotten Robinson’s support in 1960 had he won the Democratic nomination over Kennedy. Robinson’s own dedication to African American rights remained immovable, even though his party’s wasn’t.

It’s interesting to note that First Class Citizenship includes an exchange of letters between Goldwater and Robinson that coincided with Nixon’s engagement of the “southern strategy.” Though they continued to disagree, these two plain-speaking straight arrows achieved enough of a rapport to make one wonder who was more credulous or shortsighted, Robinson or Goldwater’s fellow conservatives. One thinks of William F Buckley Jr., who lived in the same Stamford, Connecticut area as Robinson, and of how, if they could have likewise looked beyond their disagreements, both men might have found enough common ground to enable the publisher of the National Review to connect the innate conservatism of Robinson and other patriotic African Americans similarly disposed to self-determination and capitalism. Instead, both the aforementioned books feature nothing but vitriolic references to Buckley from Robinson, who considered the former an incurable bigot.

Still, let’s suppose the conservative true believers had followed Dirksen’s lead (or that of the late-1950s version of Nixon) instead of Goldwater’s (or that of the late 1960s' version of Nixon). The present-day Republican Party might not be grappling so clumsily or so hard for “diversity” or dimly worrying about embedding its brand as being solely for tired, spiteful old white men. The party can talk all they want about Clarence Thomas, Allen West, Condoleezza Rice, Thomas Sowell and other black conservative Republican lights. But they aren’t nearly enough to bring the black body politic into the kind of balanced alignment Jackie Robinson was hoping for. The events chronicled in “42” will remind Americans how they should be proud of their capacity to change. What happened to that heroic baseball player’s dreams after he left baseball should remind us that there remain plenty of reasons to be ashamed.

Gene Seymour spent more than thirty years writing for daily newspapers, eighteen of them as a movie critic and feature writer for Newsday. He has been published in Film Comment, The Nation, Washington Spectator, Los Angeles Times and American History.