Jackie Robinson was asked to denounce Paul Robeson. Instead, he went after Jim Crow.
His testimony before House Un-American Activities Committee was a turning point for the baseball hero
On the morning of July 18, 1949, Jackie Robinson, dressed sharply in a tan gabardine suit, arrived at a packed room in Washington, D.C., to testify before a congressional committee about the loyalty of black Americans. Flashbulbs popped as Robinson raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth. The subject was stage star Paul Robeson, a prominent Communist sympathizer and one of the most outspoken black men in the country.
Georgia congressman John S. Wood, chairman of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), had invited the Brooklyn Dodgers hero to testify. HUAC was founded in the late 1930s to investigate subversive activity and political organizations suspected of communism. Segregationists on the committee suspected that civil rights activists were members of the Communist Party. In 1948, however, HUAC’s own investigators had concluded that Communists had made little progress in recruiting African Americans.
But a speech given by Robeson in April 1949 before the Soviet-sponsored World Peace Congress in Paris had renewed the committee’s interest in the subject. Before Robeson even began his extemporaneous talk in Paris, an Associated Press reporter had filed a story quoting the actor as saying, “It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.”
Immediately, U.S. politicians and newspaper writers branded Robeson a traitor for suggesting that black Americans would refuse to defend the United States if the Cold War turned hot. Robeson said he had been misquoted and had talked about how many Americans did not want a World War III against the Soviet Union. But his activism on behalf of oppressed workers, his challenges to racism at home and colonialism abroad, as well as his association with leftist organizations and his praise for the Soviet Union already had made him a target of critics in the press and the halls of Congress.
Perhaps this sounds familiar. As black athletes and civil rights advocates, Robeson and Robinson laid the foundation for Colin Kaepernick’s emergence as an activist-athlete. Kaepernick’s political actions can be traced to the radical black tradition, a legacy shaped in part by Robeson, the son of a runaway slave, a former athlete and entertainer turned activist, and an opponent of the intertwining forces of capitalism and racism. Yet Kaepernick’s activism also derives from the example of Robinson, a proponent of the democratic tradition and a vocal critic of lynching, police brutality and the disenfranchisement of black people.
Since World War I, when Robeson first became famous as an All-American football player at Rutgers University, white Americans expected black athletes to be seen and not heard. In the age of Jim Crow, black athletes such as Robeson, and later Robinson, came to be viewed as symbols of the country’s meritocracy, barometers of America’s racial progress. The rules for black athletes were never simple. But everyone understood that they were expected to perform without questioning the exploitative system that allowed them to play sports but discouraged them from disputing the social order — a lesson Kaepernick learned when he first took a knee during the national anthem.
The parallels between Kaepernick and Robeson demonstrate that white Americans have long insisted that black citizens should remain uncritically patriotic toward the U.S. government and its policing institutions. When they used their platforms to confront racial injustice, critics maligned them, questioned their love for America and suggested that they leave the country. One could argue that both men were blackballed from their profession and barred from performing because they defied the political boundaries imposed upon black athletes and entertainers.
Although Kaepernick settled his legal battle against the NFL owners, whom he accused of colluding to keep him out of the league, Robeson did not have the same legal power in 1949 to fight against booking agents who blacklisted him or a government that revoked his passport the following year. Yet Robeson maintained his belief in the promise of America’s democratic principles. “I love my country,” he told a writer from the Pittsburgh Courier in July 1949. “I have many calls to go to other countries to sing but I’m going to stay right here and carry on the fight.”
Although Robeson and Robinson diverged ideologically, they embodied the same spirit of resistance. Many remember Robinson as a conservative integrationist, but especially later in life, his politics were too complex for party labels. In 1972, more than 40 years before Kaepernick started the “take a knee” movement, Robinson wrote in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
Except for Joe Louis, no black American was more famous in 1949 than Robinson. When he received the invitation to testify before the HUAC, he not only led the National League in batting average, he had also received more votes for the All-Star Game than any other player — proof of his popularity among black and white fans alike. A military veteran and devoted Christian who opposed communism, Robinson was viewed as a “Noble Negro,” an exemplar of accomplishment and appropriate behavior for black people. That’s why the committee chairman turned to him to reassure the nation that black citizens loved America and would defend it against the Soviets.
In the age of the Red Scare, Robinson believed he had little choice but to testify, even though Wood had not issued a subpoena. If he declined, he risked his baseball career and being smeared as a communist sympathizer, but he also did not want to become “a tool of the witch hunters” or a pawn for white men seeking to denigrate a successful black man. In his 1960 book, Wait Till Next Year: The Life Story of Jackie Robinson, Robinson wrote that Wood was not really concerned with “establishing the patriotism of American Negroes” as much as he wanted to pit him against Robeson and advance the idea that anyone who spoke out “against racial discrimination and segregation was a tool of world communism.”
Robinson faced pressure from politicians, fans and reporters who all had opinions about whether he should testify. Stacks of letters and telegrams arrived at his home and at Ebbets Field. Friends urged him to speak before the HUAC, while others maintained that he should tell the committee to “go to hell.” In Wait Till Next Year, he noted that some black Americans warned him not to allow white politicians to divide “the colored people of the world.” Robinson understood, too, that if he publicly criticized Robeson, a man he and many others admired, he jeopardized his own popularity among black people.
Robinson sought the counsel of the one man he trusted more than any other with his career: Dodgers president and co-owner Branch Rickey. An outspoken anti-communist, Rickey insisted that he appear before the committee. Still, Robinson wavered. He did not like the idea of having to defend his own patriotism or the loyalty of black people. And, at the time, he viewed himself more as a symbol than a leading voice in the black freedom movement. “I’m not sure, Mr. Rickey. I’m not a politician. I’m a ballplayer,” he said.
Rickey reminded him that the “Great Experiment” that they started together, the integration of professional baseball, remained unfinished. In 1949, only three of the 16 major league teams included black players. In Wait Till Next Year, Robinson recalled Rickey saying that if he testified it “would be the final stroke necessary to establish forever the Negro’s place in baseball — and possibly America.”
Robinson eventually decided to testify, not out of patriotism but, as he later told members of Congress, out of “a sense of responsibility.” He feared that Robeson’s comments might convince white Americans that black citizens could not be trusted or, worse, that they were the enemy. For Robinson, testifying before the HUAC meant combating a dangerous narrative “that Negroes were waiting eagerly to betray the United States.” He had a duty, therefore, to dispel any lie that might give white supremacists license to inflict violence against black citizens.
By the time Robinson announced that he would appear before the HUAC, Robeson had returned home from Paris. During a rally in his honor at the Rockland Palace in Harlem, he defended himself against the “Uncle Toms” who questioned his “Americanism.” Urging black citizens to join the fight against injustice and erase the vestiges of slavery, he said, “We do not want to die in vain anymore on foreign battlefields for Wall Street and the greedy supporters of domestic fascism. If we must die, let it be in Mississippi or Georgia.”
If we must die, he added, “Let it be where we are lynched.”
Robinson’s appearance before the HUAC took place about a year after President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 abolishing segregation in the armed forces. For help in preparing his testimony, Robinson enlisted Lester Granger, executive director of the National Urban League and a member of the Fahy Committee, which oversaw the desegregation of the military. Robinson understood that his presence on the Dodgers made him the most visible test case for integration. He also knew that his performance on the field and his testimony had the potential to influence the racial attitudes of millions of Americans.
Before he testified on Capitol Hill, Robinson told reporters that black Americans would protect the United States against any enemy, just as they did during World War II when he served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. But Robinson knew well the racism of the nation’s armed forces. Stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1944, he refused to move when a white bus driver ordered him to the back of an Army bus. Charged with insubordination, disturbing the peace and conduct unbecoming an officer, Robinson ultimately was found not guilty of all charges. In his biography, Robinson noted that on the eve of his HUAC testimony, he could “not help but sense the irony of the fact that I, a Negro once court-martialed for opposing Army Jim Crow, should now be asked to pledge the Negro’s loyalty to the Army.”
Robinson delivered his testimony with poise but little flair. He may have respected Robeson, but he did not defend him, even though the actor wrote him a letter insisting that the press had distorted his Paris remarks. Refusing to be pulled into a feud with Robeson, the Dodgers star had little to say about him except that “if Mr. Robeson actually” said that black Americans would not fight in a war against the Soviets, such a statement seemed rather “silly.”
What made Robinson’s speech so powerful was the way he used the spotlight to contest racism and advocate for integration, making clear that black citizens’ protests for social justice derived not from some communist-inspired conspiracy but from their desire for equality and their faith in democracy. His testimony, a defiant verbal assault on Jim Crow, signaled the beginning of his political liberation:
“White people must realize that the more a Negro hates Communism because it opposes democracy, the more he is going to hate any other influence that kills off democracy in this country—and that goes for racial discrimination in the Army, and segregation on trains and buses, and job discrimination because of religious beliefs or color or place of birth.
“And one other thing the American public ought to understand, if we are to make progress in this matter: The fact that it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality, and lynching when it happens doesn’t change the truth of his charges. Just because communists kick up a big fuss over racial discrimination when it suits their purposes, a lot of people try to pretend that the whole issue is a creation of Communist imagination.
“But they are not fooling anyone with this kind of pretense, and talk about ‘Communists stirring up Negroes to protest’ only makes present misunderstanding worse than ever. Negroes were stirred up long before there was a Communist Party, and they’ll stay stirred up long after the party has disappeared — unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then as well.”
Testifying before the HUAC changed Robinson. He no longer thought of himself as just a symbol of the civil rights movement. For two years, he endured abuse and harassment on and off the field, vowing to turn the other cheek for the sake of the Great Experiment. But afterward he refused to remain silent. In the coming years, he would use his fame to confront Jim Crow, giving speeches for the NAACP, marching with civil rights leaders and writing political columns that had nothing to do with sports.
When Robinson finished testifying, the room erupted with applause, and someone shouted from the back of the gallery, “Amen!”
The following day, newspaper writers, especially white ones, praised his performance. Headlines blared: “JACKIE HITS ROBESON’S RED PITCH,” “JACKIE HITS A DOUBLE — AGAINST COMMUNISTS AND JIM CROW,” “JACKIE ROBINSON, AMERICAN.” The New York Times printed a story about him on Page 1, while the New York Daily News called him “quite a credit, not only to his own race, but to all the American people.”
While white writers celebrated Robinson’s patriotic comments and his apparent dismissal of Robeson, the black press was divided over his performance. The New York Age reported that the people of Harlem were “split sharply on the issue,” although the New York Amsterdam News could not find “one person” in Brooklyn who disagreed with Robinson. Many black columnists praised him for forcefully denouncing segregation and discrimination, though a Pittsburgh Courier columnist argued that Robinson had been a “stooge” for the HUAC.
The editors at the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the Communist Party USA, accused Robinson of “playing ball with the Ku Kluxers of the Un-American Committee,” harming “his own people and his country.” Since 1936, when the Daily Worker first added a sports section, Communist scribes had campaigned for the integration of Major League Baseball. So, too, did Robeson. In 1943, he met with a group of black sportswriters and MLB owners, arguing that if he could play football with white men, and play Othello on Broadway with white actors, then a black man could certainly make it in baseball. It’s doubtful that Robeson’s actions had any effect on Rickey’s decision to sign Robinson, but Daily Worker columnist Bill Mardo claimed that Robinson had turned his back on Robeson, the man who had “personally paved the way” for his place in Major League Baseball.
The HUAC did not invite Robeson to testify until 1956, long after the committee had damaged his reputation. After Robinson visited Washington, however, reporters hounded Robeson for a rebuttal. During a two-hour news conference at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem, he expressed his profound respect for Robinson, praising him for embracing “his responsibility to be more than just a ballplayer.” But he also believed that “Robinson, by appearing before this committee, has performed a profound political act that has aided those who would enslave the Negro.”
About a month later, in late August, when Robeson was scheduled to perform at a civil rights benefit concert in Peekskill, New York, a mob of angry white veterans set up roadblocks, smashed cars, buses and the stage, burned crosses and Robeson in effigy, and put a few dozen of his fans in the hospital. Thankfully, Robeson escaped unharmed.
The day after the “Peekskill riot,” Mardo approached Robinson in the Dodgers’ dugout. The Daily Worker columnist showed him a newspaper account of the violence. Stunned, Robinson read the story in silence. Then he looked up at Mardo with “anger written all over his face” and said, “Paul Robeson should have the right to sing, speak, or do anything he wants to do. … They say here in America you’re allowed to be whatever you want.” If Robeson wanted “to believe in Communism, that’s his right.”
Listening to him defend Robeson, Mardo came to respect Robinson. While most Americans viewed them as representatives of rival ideologies, they shared much in common as prominent men embattled in the black freedom struggle. “Jackie Robinson put his hand in Paul Robeson’s, and together they fought the same fight,” Mardo wrote. “Each in his own voice, sure. But it was the same fight.”