Brothers-in-Arms: Jackie Robinson, Colin Kaepernick, and the Black Panthers

Shortly after Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem, some of his supporters observed that his protest was in the tradition of Jackie Robinson, especially the Hall of Famer’s 1972 statement that he could no longer stand for the national anthem. While it’s true that Kaerpernick was standing on Robinson’s broad shoulders in that moment, the connection between the two superstars is much deeper than anyone has realized to date.

When Robinson commented on the anthem, one of the issues plaguing him was New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s decision to storm rioting inmates at Attica State Prison in September 1971. The violent assault left thirty-nine inmates dead; twenty-three of them were black.

Police brutality against blacks, one of Kaepernick’s main concerns, had long been on Robinson’s radar. He was personally familiar with such brutality, and he insisted on criticizing it throughout his adult life.

In September 1939, just before Robinson was about to enter UCLA, a white man pulled up next to his car and referred to Jackie and his friends as “niggers.” After the man sped off, Robinson followed him to a stop and jumped out of the car, prepared to fight.

An anxious crowd had already formed when a white police officer appeared on the scene. While Robinson’s friends slipped into the crowd, fearful of arrest, Jackie stood his ground.

The officer pulled his gun.

“I found myself up against the side of my car, with a gun barrel pressed unsteadily into the pit of my stomach,” Robinson recalled. “I was scared to death.”

Years later, when he became an informal civil rights leader at the urging of the NAACP and Martin Luther King, Jr., Robinson sensed that same fear when he saw blacks, many of them children and youths, assaulted by white police officers during the civil rights movement—in Albany, Birmingham, Watts, Chicago, Selma, and so many other places.

Robinson loudly decried the brutality in his newspapers columns as well as in numerous letters, telegrams, and phone calls to political leaders. For instance, after white state troopers clubbed and gassed nonviolent marchers in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, Robinson telegrammed President Johnson. “Important you take immediate action,” Jackie wrote. “One more day of savage treatment by legalized hatchet men could lead to open warfare by aroused Negroes.”

Unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., Robinson was not altogether nonviolent in his approach to advancing rights. He certainly did not advocate for civil rights advocates to take up arms in the face of police brutality, but he did understand and empathize with youths who, influenced by Malcolm X, had lost faith in the creed of nonviolence in the mid- to late-1960s.

In 1968, Robinson even threw his support to the Black Panthers in New York, a group that had long embraced the use of force for self-defense.

On August 21, 1968, three Black Panthers had been arrested for assaulting a police officer, and at their hearing in Brooklyn, New York, on September 4, about 150 white men stormed the courthouse and used their fists, feet, and blackjacks to beat a dozen Black Panthers and several white sympathizers. Among the attackers were off-duty New York City police officers.

No arrests were made in the immediate aftermath of the melee, and Robinson grew so incensed he decided to show his support for the Panthers by visiting with them at their headquarters in Harlem.

Before he did so, he held a widely covered news conference in which he sharply criticized police officers for being “trigger-happy” with blacks, and for not arresting their fellow white officers in the Brooklyn assault. “They should have been arrested then and there,” he said.

Robinson also defended the Panthers directly. “[They] had every reason to be violent after that kind of violence,” he said. And in a moment of deep empathy, Jackie added that had the opportunity been available to him as a teenager, he, too, might have become a Black Panther.

There was something else: Robinson greatly admired the community work carried out by the Panthers.

Long before the Panthers came into existence, Robinson mentored minority youths, especially at the Harlem YMCA, and as the Panthers undertook their own charitable efforts to strengthen black communities, Robinson, too, personally delivered food and basic goods to black neighborhoods in need, all the while calling for additional deployments in the War on Poverty.

And so, although some of Kaepernick’s sniping critics have been quick to say that he is no Jackie Robinson, they could not be more wrong.

If you want to see the roots of Kaepernick’s public condemnations of police brutality, or his hands-on work with at-risk youths, or his recent visits, with books and clothes in hand, to shelters in the Bay Area, or even his close identification with the Black Panthers, just go back to the sacrificial life of Jackie Robinson.

Kaepernick and Robinson, it turns out, are brothers-in-arms, standing tall and proud for those beaten to the ground.

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