As protests continue over the execution of Mike Brown, we are starting to see more and more Black athletes use their platform to challenge police brutality. The player’s courage on Washington’s profession football team, for example, has been amazing to witness. I hope Black athletes and entertainers continue using their voices. In doing so, they are following a path blazed by Jackie Robinson, the first Black athlete to consistently protest police brutality.
Surprisingly, it was in Jackie’s lowest political moment, when he first used his platform to publically take a stand against police brutality. Looking for a way to attack Paul Robeson’s powerful protests against American racism—Robeson questioned if Blacks should fight against Russia—in July 1949, HUAC dragged Jackie Robinson to Washington D.C., to testify on behalf of Black America. Instead of passing Civil Rights legislation, Congress wanted a loyal Black face to reassure White Americans that America was a beacon of racial democracy. Jackie’s testimony, unfortunately, cut the hero Robeson deep. Regretfully, Robinson said “I can’t speak for any fifteen million people any more than any one person can, but I know that I’ve got too much invested for my wife and child and myself in the future of this country, and I and other Americans of many races and faiths have too much invested in our country’s welfare, for any of us to throw it away because of a siren song sung in bass.” Robeson was noticeably upset by Jackie’s attack and told a reporter, “The only other time Negroes were called on to publically proclaim their loyalty was when Jeff Davis called them during the Civil War.” For his stance against the Black icon, White America praised Robinson. Robinson did more than just appease White America, however, he used his testimony to take a swing at racism. In one of his boldest statements, the baseball pioneer told HUAC, “because it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality and lynching, when it happens, doesn’t change the truth of the charges.” Robinson added “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.” Jackie Robinson put Whites and the federal government on notice. If America truly wanted racial equality, police brutality had to end.
From that moment, Jackie joined a cadre of Black voices across the country and denounced police brutality. During the 1950s and 60s, he led marches, gave speeches, and used his newspaper column. He often linked Black rage as a response to police abuse, and warned of the potential problems if brutality went unchecked. A month before the 1964 Harlem Uprising—the rebellion started after the police murdered an unarmed Black teenager—in an article entitled “Watch that Brutality,” Jackie urged, “I think our Police Commissioner must be warned that police brutality will not be tolerated by the Negro and Puerto Rican people of New York City. There has been too much of it and unless it is seriously curtailed, there can be serious and crucial times ahead for the city.” A week later at a rally to denounce violence—legendary catcher Roy Campanella, who Jackie called out for being silent on civil rights, also spoke—Jackie further warned about the brewing problems. He told the crowd “Harlem is the key to Negro areas throughout the country and efforts by Comm. Murphy or the Mayor to meet and ease problems here on police brutality will have an effect throughout the nation.”
The powers that be did not listen to Jackie Robinson and other Black leaders across the country demanding an end to abuse. Between 1964 and 1968, hundreds of uprisings started in response to police brutality. Predictably, a number of Americans, especially those on the Right, blamed the destruction on Black violence. In response to complaints, Robinson noted that so-called Black violence was a byproduct of police brutality. He argued “One cannot expect leaders to sell the non-violence cause when followers see violence erupting against them every day of their lives. Not even new civil rights bills or statesmanlike speeches can counteract this.”
Jackie was right. Civil Rights legislation has failed to protect Blacks from the police. Since emancipation, Blacks have pleaded with local, state, and federal politicians to end police brutality. Let’s hope politicians finally listen to our complaints.