One of the quiet but powerful engines that drove Jackie Robinson's passion for racial integration both on and beyond the baseball diamond was a faith long nurtured in the black church -- a prophetic faith that extolled freedom and equality, justice and dignity, unity and belonging. It was this same faith that also made him deeply wary of U.S. patriotism in the latter part of his life.
"I wouldn't fly the flag on the Fourth of July or any other day," the all-American Robinson stated in a 1969 interview with The New York Times. "When I see a car with a flag pasted on it, I figure the guy behind the wheel isn't my friend."
Robinson, chairman of the Freedom National Bank in Harlem at this point, maintained that the flag had become "captive" to the conservative movement, with its emphasis on law and order, its opposition to ongoing demands from the civil rights movement, and its support for the Vietnam War. Robinson was not a vocal opponent of the war, but he had little tolerance for American patriots who equated love of country with uncritical support for the politics of the new president, Richard Nixon.
Although he had found Nixon to be racially progressive in the late 1950s and even campaigned for him in 1960, by 1968 Robinson was labeling the Republican ticket as "racist." He was especially angered by Nixon's open courtship of Senator Strom Thurmond and other Southern segregationists during the presidential campaign. "Now he's sold out," he stated about Nixon. "He's prostituted himself to get the Southern vote."
As a dissident patriot in 1969, Robinson never fully aligned himself with the Nixon supporters who, compliments of Gulf Oil, plastered flag decals on their car windows at the start of the Quaker's first term.
The Nixon administration, of course, responded in kind: John Ehrlichman directed J. Edgar Hoover to submit a written FBI report on Robinson, and Hoover obliged just weeks following Robinson's tirade against flying the flag.
Clearly, they did not understand the Hall of Famer. Although a contrarian, Robinson was no Malcolm X. "America is not perfect by a long shot," he had penned Malcolm in 1963, "but I happen to like it here and will do all I can to help make it the kind of place where my children and theirs can live in dignity."
He was not exaggerating. After integrating baseball, Robinson became a full-fledged leader in the civil rights movement. He lobbied presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon, served on the boards of the NAACP and CORE, led rallies at the invitation of Martin Luther King Jr., raised millions of dollars for African-American causes, worked fulltime on community issues for New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, accepted the first vice-presidency of Jesse Jackson's PUSH, and much more.
He did so partly because his prophetic faith demanded it. From his days in junior college, when he taught Sunday school at Scott Methodist Church in Pasadena, to his first years with the Brooklyn Dodgers, when he agreed to abide by Branch Rickey's Christian admonition to turn the other cheek, to his rich life beyond the baseball diamond, when righteous anger overcame him as he stood atop the smoldering ashes of black churches scorched by racists in Alabama, Robinson was driven by two prophetic convictions.
The first was that all the people of God -- each and every brother and sister in the human family -- should be free, equal and together, and not in some indeterminate future, but right here and right now, in everyday civil and political society. The second was that all of us, especially those with material resources, have a pressing obligation to help set the captive free and create a just society for all.
With these faith convictions in tow, Robinson devoted his life to building the reign of God right here on earth and, at the same time, to criticizing his own country when it failed to live up to his prophetic vision.
Indeed, near the end of his life, Robinson's prophetic faith, coupled with his cultural identity, made him deeply resistant to the siren calls of U.S. patriotism. "I cannot stand and sing the anthem," he wrote in his 1972 autobiography. "I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world."
A variety of events had served to deepen Robinson's pessimism, especially Nixon's opposition to busing as a tool for school desegregation, the deadly storming of Attica State Prison and Republican plans to slash welfare -- the type of policies and events that Jackie believed radically undermined the unity of the family of God and the future of his own children.
Even then, though, Robinson's faith kept him hopeful, and shortly before his death he penned his last known letter to Nixon. The issue at hand was Nixon's opposition to busing, and Robinson thundered forth like a prophet. "Mr. President," he wrote, "...[b]ecause I want so much to be a part of and to love this nation as I once did, I hope you will take another look at where we are going and be the president who leads the nation to accept difficult but necessary action, rather than the one who fosters division."
Nixon did not reply, and Robinson died of complications from diabetes seven months later.
There was no flag on his coffin; the stunning silver-blue casket was draped with red flowers. Absent white, the color combination seemed perfectly fitting for this uneasy patriot -- this black Christian prophet who hoped against hope that one day his people would at last be free.