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Michael G. Long Headshot

Jackie Robinson, Not Karl Rove

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For a long time, the Republican National Committee touted Jackie Robinson as an all-star Republican on its website. But rather than merely displaying Robinson as a hero of the party, Republican leadership should have accepted pointed advice he offered back in the 1960s: Don't become a white man's party.

Let's take a quick look at Robinson and the Republican Party.

Throughout the 1950s Robinson was convinced that the Republican Party was slanted towards freedom, and that African Americans would do well to avoid becoming captive to just one political party, especially the Democratic Party, with its Dixiecrats chairing key congressional committees.

As a tireless advocate of "the two-party system," Robinson shocked many of his African American friends when he signed up to campaign full-time for Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential election. The baseball great was disgusted by John Kennedy's open courtship of Southern governors and also quite taken by Nixon's racially progressive statements.

But Nixon's campaign team proved to be equally troubling, and Robinson soured on the team for going far out of its way to avoid Harlem and other key African-American areas. Nixon did not escape Robinson's fierce wrath, either.

In October, Robinson had lobbied hard for the candidate to telephone his concern to Martin Luther King, Jr., who had just begun to serve a potentially life-threatening sentence of four months of hard labor at Reidsville State Prison in Georgia. But Nixon, never quite comfortable around blacks, declined, stating that contacting King would have been "grandstanding."

John Kennedy, by contrast, telephoned Coretta Scott King, and his brother Robert intervened with a local judge to help secure King's release. Predictably, a grateful Martin Luther King, Sr. then announced to the press that he would cast his vote for John Kennedy. The significant bloc of African American voters followed suit, assuring victory for the Massachusetts liberal.

Robinson was crushed, and just after the election he poured out his frustration in a letter to Albert Hermann, campaign director of the Republican National Committee. "I was terribly disappointed over the election and feel we are at a great loss," he wrote. "I cannot help but feel we must work for a two-party system as far as the Negro is concerned."

Hermann later thanked Robinson for the letter, adding, "Personally, it is my judgment that you could be a 'Messiah' for the Republican Party in the days ahead."

God knows Robinson tried -- and failed miserably.

In the following year, he implored Nixon to do something about Barry Goldwater's statement to a group of influential Republican leaders in Atlanta. "We're not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are," Goldwater had stated.

That divisive statement, Robinson wrote Nixon, "will be Republican policy until someone other than Goldwater vigorously denies that the Republican Party is not interested in the Negro vote."

Nixon did not come through, and Robinson's disappointment only deepened when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. "His candidacy," Robinson wrote, "reeks with prejudice and bigotry."

Warning that Republicans were forming a "white man's party," Robinson then campaigned for Hubert Humphrey in 1964. But he drifted back to the Republican fold once again in the mid-1960s, this time focusing his lobbying efforts on his all-time favorite politician, Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. "The sooner there is a strong two-party system in New York as well as nationwide, the sooner we get our rights," he penned Rockefeller in 1965.

With Robinson's help, Rockefeller built a solid base of African American voters in New York, but the party faithful on the national level never warmed up to the liberal Republican. And Robinson's hope for a two-party system fizzled yet again when Nixon cozied up to Southern segregationists during the 1968 presidential election, leading Robinson to wonder how any self-respecting African American could ever vote for the "racist" Republican ticket.

Unbelievably, though, Robinson refused to surrender.

Still arguin,%22&source=bl&ots=6Ew3XsL8hW&sig=3xyBt2ftJcaM3LOMMQYkeiSA7TE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=QxOdUMKoMuLu0gHG04DIAw&ved=0CDMQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=falseg that "it is not good policy for any minority to put all of their eggs in one political basket," he attended a 1972 dinner hosted by the Black Committee to Reelect the President.

His reward? In the spring of that same year, Nixon called for a moratorium on busing that would achieve racial balance in public schools.

Robinson would never become an all-star with the Republican Party, and the reason for his failure is clear: Republican leaders confined him to the corner of the dugout so that they could please the millions of white fans who were loudly cheering for political order, not racial justice, in those turbulent times.

At the end of his life, Robinson was left to beg and plead. "Because I want so much to be a part of and to love this nation as I once did," he wrote in his last letter to Nixon, "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 one who fosters division."

Nixon did not reply.

The deafening silence has continued ever since, even the whole way through the 2012 presidential election, when Republican leaders embraced Karl Rove and his rich white brethren rather than Jackie Robinson and his calls for inclusion.

Sadly, 40 years after his last appeal, Jackie Robinson remains benched in the Republican Party, unable to storm out of the dugout and win with a racially integrated team.

That's no way to treat an all-star.