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Before Trump vs. the NFL, there was Jackie Robinson vs. JFK

Jackie Robinson, left, in his playing days. He pressured President John F. Kennedy, right, on civil rights. (AP photos)

President Trump ignited a firestorm this weekend by demanding NFL owners fire players who kneel during the national anthem, setting off a wave of protests by players, coaches and even owners that riveted the country Sunday. But long before Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players drew Trump’s ire, professional athletes protested racial oppression in the United States.

One African American sports icon even badgered a president publicly. Jackie Robinson, the hero who integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, spoke out loudly for civil rights and challenged President John F. Kennedy to stop dithering on black equality.

Unlike Trump, JFK sought to understand Robinson’s complaints, corresponded by letter with the baseball star and met with him to hear his concerns. Eventually, in response to Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr. and a growing protest movement, Kennedy delivered a landmark speech in 1963 that spoke of inequality in moral terms and set in motion civil rights legislation that passed the year after his assassination. For his part, Jackie Robinson, after having repeatedly disparaged Kennedy, arrived at a new appreciation for JFK’s willingness to hear the pleas of African Americans and lead on civil rights.

Like Trump, JFK was tested by white supremacists. Here’s what he finally did about it.

Robinson became a blunt civil rights advocate after his retirement from baseball in 1956. Because of his delicate position as the first African American in the major leagues, he  had to walk a fine line while he was still playing. As Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who integrated baseball, put it when interviewing Robinson for a job on the team: “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

Robinson’s complaints about Kennedy began before JFK had captured the White House. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Robinson favored Vice President Richard Nixon.

His preference for the Republican was in keeping with a tradition of blacks leaning toward the party of Lincoln and in response to a friendship based mostly on a mutual love of sports that had blossomed between Robinson and Nixon.

Robinson, the former Brooklyn Dodger who endured relentless racism after breaking baseball’s color barrier, also believed in Nixon’s commitment to civil rights. In 1957, he wrote to the vice president, praising him for speaking out on the issue during a trip to Africa. In his speech in Ethiopia, Nixon had declared: “We shall never be satisfied … until … equal opportunity becomes a reality for all Americans,” prompting Robinson to offer: “In this endeavor you have my best wishes and steadfast cooperation.”

Robinson was suspicious of Kennedy, particularly as he set his sights on the White House. JFK had sought to ingratiate himself with a crucial constituency: segregationist Southern whites. In 1959, as he neared the launch of his presidential campaign, he invited Alabama governor John Patterson, a virulent racist, to breakfast at his Georgetown home. When the governor emerged from the private parley he endorsed Sen. Kennedy for president, calling him “a friend of the South.” Blacks wondered if a secret deal had been struck: What promises had Kennedy made to gain Southern support?

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Kennedy’s apparent compromises on civil rights infuriated Robinson, and JFK became a frequent target in a column Robinson wrote for the New York Post. Kennedy’s popularity among African Americans suffered, prompting the Massachusetts senator to meet with Robinson in a bid to quiet his criticisms. Their conversation a few weeks before the Democratic National Convention was at first courteous and candid. But Robinson became offended when Kennedy admitted that he knew few blacks and still had more to learn about the community’s suffering.

“Although I appreciated his truthfulness in the matter,” Robinson said later, “I was appalled that he could be so ignorant of our situation and be bidding for the highest office in the land.” From there the meeting deteriorated: Robinson condemned Kennedy for his apparent friendship with Patterson, the white supremacist governor whose campaign in Alabama had been supported by the Ku Klux Klan. Robinson rejected JFK’s attempt to explain away the breakfast as a courtesy extended to a state leader.

Eager to make amends, Kennedy asked Robinson what it would take to win his support. But the baseball legend misinterpreted him and became incensed, believing the wealthy candidate wanted to buy him off.

“Look, senator,” he told Kennedy, “I don’t want any of your money. I’m just interested in helping the candidate who I think will be best for black America.” To make matters worse, Robinson was sure that during the meeting Kennedy refused to look him in the eye — further evidence of the senator’s insincerity.

Afterward Kennedy wrote a long letter to Robinson, praising him for his civil rights efforts, stressing his own desire “for an end to all discrimination” and reiterating the innocence of his meeting with Patterson. In a reply five days later, Robinson said he still needed “more evidence regarding your sincerity in these matters” but he was “willing to wait and see what develops at the convention and what you do if nominated.” Robinson, apparently, was still ticked off about one aspect of their encounter. “Please don’t consider me presumptuous but I would like to make one suggestion,” he wrote. “While trying to impress anyone with your sincerity you must be able to look them squarely in the eye.”

Although still offended, Robinson toned down his public criticism. In his New York Post column, he described Kennedy as an “impressive man” who had a “willingness to learn,” then added grudgingly: “Sen. Kennedy is a little late in seeking to make himself clear, after 14 years in Congress. But if he is sincere, there is still time to catch up.”

After Kennedy’s election, Robinson kept up the pressure. In 1962, the  president had a very public confrontation with the steel industry: JFK wanted steel makers to hold the line on prices to combat inflation, and he thought he had an agreement until the chairman of U.S. Steel announced a price hike of 3.5 percent. Other steelmakers were soon to follow. Kennedy was livid. His close adviser Kenneth O’Donnell described him as “white with anger.” JFK stormed around the Oval Office, seething: “He f—-d me. They f—-d us.” Kennedy’s stunned aides watched as the president let loose: “Businessmen were all pricks,” he frothed. “God, I hate the bastards. . . . They kicked us right in the balls.”

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Still indignant the following day, the president went public with his anger. At a news conference, he opened with a long statement holding nothing back, calling the steel companies’ actions “wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible.” Newspapers across the country heralded the president’s outrage. “Righteous indignation in spades,” said the New York Daily News; a “bitter denunciation,” chimed the Atlanta Constitution. By a combination of vitriolic denouncement and severe arm turning, the president got the industry to rescind its price increases.

Robinson was among the millions observing the president’s startling performance, quite unlike anything ever seen from the cool, suave leader. Soon after the price rollback, Robinson published an open letter to the president as one of the regular columns he now wrote for the New York Amsterdam News, a newspaper geared toward the African American community. “One thing is sure,” he said, praising the president’s muscle. “You were definite. You were strong in your stand and you displayed a flash of anger and spunk which many people admired. To make a long story short — you got angry.”

Then Robinson pivoted to his real topic: civil rights. Why, he wanted to know, hadn’t the president shown the same passion over the injustices heaped daily on blacks in America? Didn’t the president believe, Robinson asked, that first-class citizenship for blacks was in the best interests of our democracy?

“Without meaning to be impertinent, Mr. President, we have a suggestion,” Robinson said. He advised the president to go off somewhere alone and think about racial prejudice until he got as angry as he was about steel prices. Then the president could channel his fury into “the battle against the bigots in this country who are working harder to destroy it from within than any foreign power is working to destroy it from without.” Robinson wanted the president to inject some passion into his fight for civil rights. “Why Mr. President,” the baseball hero urged, “why don’t you get angry again?”

It would take Kennedy another year before he would direct his anger at the treatment of blacks in America. His progress on civil rights was halting, ineffectual, and Robinson remained a vociferous voice in protest. In May of 1963, as protesters in Birmingham were attacked by police dogs and knocked off their feet by fire hoses, Robinson wrote to the president. “The pace at which our country is moving toward total equality for all peoples is miserably slow,” he said. The “atrocities” inflicted on blacks in the South were “disgusting,” he added, noting: “The revolution that is taking place in this country cannot be squelched by police dogs or high power hoses.”

Finally, however, the mounting criticism from Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. and the spreading unrest had awakened the president. On June 11, 1963, on short notice, he went on television to announce plans to introduce civil rights legislation. “We face,” he said “a moral crisis as a country and as a people. It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk.” He addressed civil rights in moral terms as no president ever had.

That night, Jackie Robinson had a change of heart. So long dissatisfied by Kennedy, Robinson sharply revised his opinion. JFK had listened and learned and had demonstrated his moral leadership, winning the approval of a bitter critic.

Robinson sent a glowing telegram to the White House. “Thank you for emerging as the most forthright President we have ever had and for providing us with the inspired leadership that we so desperately needed,” Robinson wrote. “I am more proud than ever of my American heritage.”

In a newspaper column drafted the following day, the baseball star went public with his praise. “As an American citizen,” he began, “I am deeply proud of our President. In my opinion, the address which Mr. Kennedy made to the American people on the color question is one of the finest declarations ever issued in the cause of human rights.” Robinson reminded readers of his earlier criticism of the president then declared: “I must state now that I believe the President has come through with statesmanship, with courage, with wisdom and absolute sincerity.”

Steven Levingston is nonfiction editor of The Washington Post and author of “Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle over Civil Rights.” Parts of this story were adapted from his book. 

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