Goldie Taylor—The Radical Political Independence of Jackie Robinson

He helped changed the face of baseball—and later the face of American politics.

Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Known first and foremost for breaking the Big League color line, Jackie Robinson kept fighting for black Americans long after he walked off the diamond in 1956—and his ominous warning in 1964 about “a new breed” of angry white Republicans proved sadly prophetic.

Despite Republican attempts to retroactively claim him, the second baseman was unapologetically black and fiercely independent, using his enormous fame to fight racial discrimination and arguing that issues should trump party allegiance as black Americans gained greater access to the ballot box.

Now the subject of a two-part, four-hour documentary directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon debuting April 11 and 12 on PBS, Robinson emerged as a critical voice in the civil rights movement, as candidates from both parties sought the retired player’s counsel and his endorsement.

“I’ve never identified myself with one party or another in politics,” the Hall of Famer said in his autobiography. “I admit freely that I think, live, and breathe black first and foremost.”

Robinson openly questioned John F. Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights in 1960, calling his vows to eradicate discrimination “insincere” and endorsing Richard Nixon. The move was not unusual at a time when 40 percent of black voters routinely pulled the lever for GOP candidates.

But in October, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested at a lunch counter sit-in in Atlanta and sentenced to four months on an old traffic charge. Nixon refused to intervene amid fears that the sentence would prove prelude to a lynching and it was Kennedy who made the crucial call to Coretta Scott King, helping to secure Dr. King’s freedom and garnering new endorsements from both Dr. King’s father and Robinson.

“Jackie Robinson was a sit-inner before sit-ins,” Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

Robinson was derided in some quarters as a “sellout” and an “Uncle Tom” for switching candidates and party just ahead of the election. But many African-American voters saw things similarly, as Nixon won only a third of the black vote in November— a decisive factor in his narrow loss.

By early 1964, months after Kennedy’s assassination, Robinson was closely aligned with New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a politically liberal Republican who was briefly the GOP frontrunner for president, in opposition to Barry Goldwater. The five-term Arizona senator, Robinson said, was a “bigot” and “an advocate of white supremacy,” who was fanning the flames of white resentment.

“Goldwater, at best, is a hopeless captive of the lunatic, calculating right wing extremists,” he wrote in his nationally syndicated column, which was carried by nearly every black newspaper in the country.

“Goldwater and his forces stand for the destruction of everything we hold dear,” Robinson continued. “We shall deserve to lose it all if we do not stand up like men to be counted where we have always stood—foremost in the ranks of the fight for freedom.”

After Goldwater—best known for his role in igniting a resurgence of American conservatism—claimed the nomination at the San Francisco convention, Robinson called him the “greatest disaster the Republican Party has ever known.”

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“A new breed of Republicans has taken over the GOP,” Robinson warned in his column. “It is a new breed which is seeking to sell to Americans a doctrine which is as old as mankind—the doctrine of racial division, the doctrine of racial prejudice, the doctrine of white supremacy.”

The fight, he said, went beyond the ballot box.

“We must fight them in the precincts,” he wrote. “We must fight them in the churches. We must fight them on our jobs in our union halls. We must work and struggle and sacrifice… [to] ensure that Goldwater-ism and extremism and anti-Negroism will be so brutally defeated that they can never again threaten the future of America.”

Goldwater, who opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act as unconstitutional, won only his home state of Arizona and the five former Confederates states of the Deep South—Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina and Mississippi. He got just 6 percent of the black vote in the general election thanks to the backlash ginned up by Robinson and others.

However, defeating Goldwater was not enough. Despite his crushing loss, Republicans invested heavily in his policies and politics in the years and decades since. In 1968, Nixon courted Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a segregationist “Dixiecrat,” and beginning to craft what became known as the “Southern Strategy.”

While Dwight Eisenhower and Nixon received 39 and 32 percent of the black vote, respectively, no Republican presidential candidate since Goldwater has won more than 15 percent of the black vote.

Like many others, Robinson saw the tide coming and he was angered by the re-emergence of white resentment and race-driven economic tensions as a national political ideology. He openly challenged the GOP on their “social philosophy” and their inability to attract diverse candidates.

“Every chance I got, while I was campaigning, I said plainly what I thought of the right-wing Republicans and the harm they were doing,” he said of his work on behalf of Rockefeller in ’64. “I felt the GOP was a minority party in terms of the numbers of registered voters and could not win unless they updated their social philosophy and sponsored candidates and principles to attract the young, the black, and the independent voter.”

“By and large Republicans had ignored blacks and sometimes handpicked a few servile leaders in the black community to be their token ‘niggers.’ How would I sound trying to go all out to sell Republicans to black people? They’re not buying. They know better.”

Robinson, who was also the country’s first black sports broadcast analyst, would later accuse President Nixon of “polarizing this country,” in a March 1972 letter to the White House.

“Although President Nixon’s civil rights record was considerably stronger (especially on public schools desegregation) than many understood,” Michael Beschloss wrote for The New York Times in 2014, “he was eager that year to carry the five Southern states that had supported George Wallace’s third-party candidacy in 1968.”

But, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, GOP primary candidates have embraced key elements of Goldwater and Nixon’s strategies. While President Reagan ran the board in 1980 and 1984, by whipping up and winning white voters based on economic fears, Trump is more direct in his approach. However, his America-first, us vs. them mantra speaks to the same base. Most polls show the real estate developer losing handily this fall, but there is no question that the nomination train runs straight through Trump Tower.

“…If you look beneath the surface, you’ll see in 1964’s outcome many of the contours of today’s political map,” wrote Larry Sabato, professor or politics at University of Virginia. “More importantly some of the techniques that still power our very partisan politics 50 years later had their origins in 1964’s deeply polarizing contest.”

Jackie Robinson, who died of a heart attack two weeks before the 1972 presidential election, left no question about his disdain for what Republicans had become and his distaste for how national candidates exploited racial divisions for their own gain.

“A Barry Goldwater victory,” he wrote in his autobiography, “would insure that the GOP would be completely the white man’s party.”

Robinson publically reviled Goldwater, but one can only imagine what he might have thought about Reagan or had to say about Trump.