Jackie Robinson vs. Malcolm X
How two civil rights icons waged a public, ideological feud through op-eds and public speeches
“I disagreed with Malcolm vigorously in many areas during his earlier days, but I certainly agreed with him when he said, ‘Don’t tell me about progress the black man has made. You don’t stick a knife 10 inches in my back, pull it out three or four, then tell me I’m making progress.’ ” – Jackie Robinson
Few days in Malcolm Little’s imprisonment ever made him smile. He inhabited a caged world where sinners outnumber saviors and hell is a lot closer than heaven. But on April 15, 1947, a grin eased across his face as he listened to the radio.
Little, still years away from dropping that “slave name” and replacing it with “X,” wed himself to the radio to hear Jackie Robinson become the first African-American to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Little understood what was at stake. If Robinson succeeded on the field, he would shatter the ugly stereotypes about black-male inferiority. Carrying the burden of his race also meant that, if he failed, it would set back the freedom movement. But just hearing the announcer call Robinson’s name was enough to fill Little with pride, calling himself, then, Robinson’s most “fanatic fan” in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
You only do two days in the joint: the day you go in and the day you get out. In 1947, Little passed the time acting as Robinson’s unofficial statistician, figuring out his batting average after every game. He was in the second year of an eight-to-10 year sentence for burglary. Less than a year later, he was transferred to Concord Prison, where his brother, Philbert, persuaded him to join the Nation of Islam, a decision that would make him the most controversial black man in America years later.
In many ways, when Robinson integrated the MLB, it placed him at the forefront of the modern civil rights movement. There was still work to be done, as not every team was as open as the Brooklyn Dodgers to diversifying its clubhouse to men who looked like Robinson. But peering into the stands in National League ballparks across the country, Robinson saw black faces in the same section as white faces. For black folks, going to see Robinson play baseball was an event.
From Charlestown State Prison in Boston, Little grasped the magnitude of the moment. Robinson forced white people to re-examine their attitudes about race and segregation in America. He helped pave the way for a movement that would accept nothing short of equality. What Little admired most about Robinson in 1947 was that he was a black man who possessed the kind of courage that inspired African-Americans to fearlessly stand up against injustice.
But by 1963, nine years after Little left prison, Robinson was anything but a hero to him.
Now named Malcolm X, and a minister in the Nation of Islam since 1953, he preached black nationalism. Many in the black community respected Malcolm X, who they felt spoke the brutal truth about race in America. He gallantly condemned white supremacists and never cowered. But he was also known as a fiery demagogue who called whites “devils” and, infamously in 1962, asserted that a “blessing from God” caused Air France Flight 007 to crash and kill 120 white passengers. In his mind, Allah delivered retribution for the white man’s crimes against the black man. This earned him worldwide acclaim for all the wrong reasons. And as the second most powerful man in the Nation of Islam — a group viewed by many as a terrorist organization — he drew venomous criticism from black and white detractors.
For much of 1963 and into 1964, Robinson was one of Malcolm X’s most vocal critics and vice versa.
“Malcolm X and his organization believe in separation. They have every right to. If they want to go off into some all-black community, why don’t they just go.” – Jackie Robinson, The Chicago Defender ( July 13, 1963 )
Historically, and notably in recent years, dueling schools of thought — occasionally headlined by prominent athletes — have butted heads in very public forums (a la former Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis and Black Lives Matter). Robinson and Malcolm X fought for the same end goal of black liberation and equality. The root of their issues with each other stemmed from conflicting viewpoints of how to get there. Robinson was a proponent of integration and an avid supporter of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach, though he claimed in a July 1963 column in The Chicago Defender, he was not and didn’t know “how I could ever be nonviolent.” Malcolm X, on the other hand, believed black people should live separately from their white counterparts. Segregation, he argued, reduced black people to second-class citizenship. But separatism was a choice black nationalists used to assert their political and economic independence.
By 1963, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were the yin to leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Robinson and NAACP activist Medgar Evers’ yang. Malcolm X, in particular, didn’t mind firing back with threats of physical retaliation, openly disrespecting the white establishment and denouncing black leaders he saw as “Uncle Toms.”
To Robinson, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were serious threats to the goals of the civil rights movement.
On April 6, 1963, Robinson published a column in the New Journal and Guide — a weekly African-American news journal that, like outlets such as The Chicago Defender, was a megaphone of the civil rights movement — calling out revered Congressman Adam Clayton Powell for suggesting that black people boycott the NAACP and support Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Of the minister, Robinson expressed his respect, but hammered home the notion that black Muslims were not the true solution to the black man’s problem.
“Your failure to check the source or the truth, led you to publicize an untruth. You wrote of Adam’s ‘rallying call to the Negro people to support Malcolm X and Black Muslims. Adam’s only reference along this line was substantially the following: ‘I don’t agree with many of the things said and done by Malcolm X, but I do agree with him that the man must control his own destiny.’ ” – John H. Young III, co-worker of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, New Journal and Guide ( April 13, 1963 )
Malcolm X responded a month later in Washington, D.C., when he told reporters that King’s actions were dictated by white liberals who helped fund his nonviolent movement, as reported by the New York Amsterdam News in May 1963. Rumors swirled that Malcolm X would visit Birmingham, Alabama, after the Ku Klux Klan bombed King’s organizing headquarters, but Malcolm X’s superior, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, ordered him to refrain from retaliation, a recurring theme in their relationship.
Malcolm X criticized those who traveled to Birmingham to support King after the bombing, such as Robinson and boxer Floyd Patterson. Their trip to the ravaged southern city, he said, was nothing more than pawns being manipulated by white liberals trying to assuage a justifiably angry community.
The minister’s dismissive take on Robinson’s involvement in the protests and cold remarks to other activists angered the baseball great. He was the one who dealt with all types of verbal and mental abuse during his playing days and was proud of his post-baseball accomplishments. He was a leader in civil rights and a successful businessman, becoming the vice president of Chock full o’Nuts coffee, a corporation with many black employees. He had become a legend for his athletic exploits, but now he was becoming an African-American icon for his dedication to the betterment of “his people.”
In his July 1963 column in The Chicago Defender, Robinson flipped the script. He demanded Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam to accept responsibility for an egging incident on King in Harlem, New York, an act Malcolm X all but ordered. He also questioned whether the Nation of Islam received funds from outside the race.
“Could it be that individuals or groups, which believe in segregation, find the Muslim version of segregation-separation useful to their cause?” he asked. Although Robinson didn’t mention any names, he was likely referencing a public 1961 Nation of Islam rally attended by members of the American Nazi Party and its founder George Lincoln Rockwell (the Nazis were reportedly outnumbered 800-1).
Malcolm X had accused Robinson of shucking and jiving. Robinson accused Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam of leading black America down a path of surefire destruction. But the war of words would only become more personal.
Civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in his driveway on June 12, 1963, in Jackson, Mississippi. Byron De La Beckwith, his killer, couldn’t even look him in the eye as he shot the civil rights leader in the back with a rifle. Evers would be the first in a series of leaders to meet extremely violent deaths in the fight for equality. Malcolm X did not attend Evers’ funeral. Robinson would use this as fuel for a Nov. 16 column in The Chicago Defender.
“Dr. Bunche attended the funeral of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss. and denounced the cold-blooded murder,” he wrote. “Malcolm is very militant on Harlem street corners where militancy is not dangerous.”
Robinson’s column was a result of comments made by Malcolm X and Powell regarding United Nations undersecretary Ralph Bunche, a man the former ball player admired deeply for his commitment to race relations. In an earlier interview with Playboy, Malcolm X ripped Bunche, labeling him an “international tool” for his white bosses. Bunche’s job, the minister said, was safe because he “represents, speaks for and defends the white man. He does none of this for the black man.”
Perhaps, Malcolm X read Robinson’s column. Three days later, The Philadelphia Tribune reported Malcolm X responded in a fiery speech at a Philadelphia Muslim bazaar. He denounced the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, called Robinson an “ex-baseball player” and said King was a “handkerchief-headed Uncle Tom.”
“To understand Malcolm as a political figure is to understand that he embodied African-American oral culture,” said Johnny Smith, co-author of Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. “He believed in the power of words. He was very deliberate in his choice of words.”
“Very deliberate” is about the best way to explain Malcolm X’s Dec. 7 column. Robinson had published his beliefs about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam for months in African-American newspapers. He believed Malcolm X, with his talk of separation, was a viable threat to African-Americans in the quest for civil rights. But this time it was Malcolm X’s turn to address his former hero. If the response were a hip-hop battle record, it’d be “No Vaseline” or “Hit ‘Em Up.”
On Robinson’s political ties and support of Richard Nixon: “Aren’t you the same ex-baseball player who tried to ‘mislead’ Negroes in Nixon’s camp during the last presidential election? Evidently, you were the only Negro who voted for Nixon, because according to the polls taken afterward, very few Negroes were dumb enough to follow your ‘mislead.’ ”
On Robinson’s connection to the black community: “You stay as far away from the Negro community as you can get. You never take an interest in anything in the Negro community until the white man himself takes an interest in it. You, yourself would never shake my hand until you saw some of your white friends shake it.”
On not attending Medgar Evers’ funeral: “If my integrity or sincerity is to be measured in your eyesight by attendance at funerals of Negroes who have been murdered by whites, if you should ever meet with such misfortune I promise to attend your funeral. Then, perhaps you will be able to see me in a different light. If you should ever become as militant on behalf of your oppressed people as Medgar Evers was, the same whites whom you now take to be your friends will be the first to put the bullet or the dagger in your back, just as they put it in the back of Medgar Evers.”
Months of frustration and paranoia had finally boiled over for Malcolm X. The same day his anti-Robinson column hit papers, so did news of his suspension from the Nation of Islam for controversial remarks — “chickens coming home to roost” — following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
The former Brooklyn Dodger defended himself eloquently in a column a week later in The Chicago Defender. Robinson denounced Malcolm X as a racist.
But Robinson went further.
“Those of us who are so committed have no intention of supporting the idea of a separate black state where the Honorable Muhammad can be the ruler and you, his immediate successor — and all because you, Malcolm, hate white people,” Robinson wrote in that same Dec. 14, 1963, column.
Blasting Malcolm X was one thing. Mentioning Muhammad — the supreme minister in the Nation of Islam and unquestioned leader — immediately meant Robinson’s words had run its course in the Nation of Islam. Speaking ill of him could come with heavy consequences.
As such, according to Blood Brothers, at the height of their feud in 1963-64, tensions nearly escalated to physical violence. A supposed plot to harm Robinson was put in motion following an editorial that spoke of Muhammad in an unfavorable light. The only problem was that the group of black Muslims confused Jackie Robinson for Sugar Ray Robinson. Muhammad preached that sports were a distraction for black people. The group reportedly went to his house, but the boxing great was not home and the plan was abandoned.
Tensions cooled slightly in 1964. After Muhammad Ali’s February defeat of Sonny Liston, Malcolm X called the boxer, then still Cassius Clay, the finest black athlete he had ever seen and one who would mean more to African-Americans than any before him. (“He is more than Jackie Robinson was, because Robinson is the white man’s hero. But Cassius is the black man’s hero.”)
Malcolm X and Robinson’s beef represented two rival, but very real viewpoints in African-American culture in the mid-1960s.
Three months after the Clay and Robinson comments, Malcolm X, now completely removed from the Nation of Islam, embarked on his pilgrimage to Mecca. The trip forever changed his worldview. He found spiritual wholeness for the first time in his life. Gone were the beliefs of white people as exclusively evil. He saw Muslims with “blonde hair and blue eyes” practicing the same faith. His calls for a separate black state vanished, too.
Many Americans, including Robinson, were astonished by this new Malcolm X. Was he for real in wanting to cooperate with civil rights leaders, many of whom he berated only months earlier? What was his endgame? In his rise to national prominence and controversy, Malcolm X won a legion of followers, particularly young people who adored his audacious attitude. But at this time in his life, the hate surrounding his name perhaps outweighed the love.
“In my view, if Malcolm were sincere and honest in his new visions,” Robinson wrote in The Chicago Defender on July 18, 1964, “he would reflect on how harshly and unjustly he has belittled and sought to discredit our national responsible leaders who have been working in the struggle for so long.”
Robinson was half-right. For the second time in his life, Malcolm X was reformed in his thinking. He was genuine and no longer indoctrinated by Muhammad’s teachings. This was not the same man who mercilessly blasted him in a column less than a year ago. But the ballplayer-turned-activist-and-columnist had a point. Pre-Mecca Malcolm X offended many African-American leaders who, in truth, could help promote his new line of thinking and his Organization of Afro-American Unity he desperately needed to get off the ground.
Continuing a back-and-forth with Robinson did not rank near the top of Malcolm X’s agenda the last seven months of his life. His once unshakable brotherhood with Ali had evaporated after the champ sided with the Nation of Islam and viewed Malcolm X as a traitor. Muhammad became the target of the minister’s verbal attacks, accusing him of “religious fakery” and “immorality.” And Malcolm X — like King would experience three years later — understood living a long life was not in his cards. Mortality became his reality. (“Every morning when I wake up, now, I regard it as having another borrowed day,” he told writer Alex Haley in his autobiography. “Anyway, now, each day I live as if I am already dead.”)
Robinson was playing golf when news of Malcolm X’s assassination reached the warm weather of Miami on Feb. 21, 1965. Despite their fallout, the impact of Malcolm X’s murder hit Robinson quite hard.
“The person or persons who murdered Malcolm have stilled his articulate voice,” he wrote in his March 1965 column for The Chicago Defender. “But, in making him a martyr, they have only deepened whatever influence he may have had. In addition, they have generated a senseless brutal … war which sees black hands raised against brothers at a time when we most need unity among black people.”
Robinson later referred to the assassination as a “tragedy of the first order” in his autobiography. Trying to change tomorrow, as the 1960s taught repeatedly, came with a sacrifice. Had Robinson and Malcolm X had one more chance to speak, perhaps history would be different. Maybe they could have found middle ground. Maybe they could have apologized for how things spiraled out of control so quickly and publicly. Or maybe, most importantly, they both could have seen in each other what Malcolm X saw in Robinson from his prison cell two decades earlier.
They were, after all, two freedom fighters.