Martin Luther King, Jr. once described his good friend Jackie Robinson as “a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the Freedom Rides.”
King was right, of course. During his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson “turned the other cheek” in the face of vicious racism so that he could help ensure the successful integration of Major League Baseball—and the transformation of America.
Robinson’s sacrifice was—and remains—a landmark event in US history, and one that has inspired countless nonviolent activists ever since.
Nevertheless, Jackie Robinson was no Martin Luther King. Jr.
Robinson never accepted nonviolence as a way of life. Even in 1947, while he was turning the other cheek, he experienced a burning desire to hit back. This was true especially when Phillies manager Ben Chapman and his team harassed Robinson from the safety of their dugout. “Hey, nigger, why don’t you go back to the cotton fields where you belong?” they shouted.
Robinson was livid. As he recalled it, “For one wild and rage-crazed minute I thought … To hell with the patient black freak I was supposed to create. I could throw down my bat, stride over to the Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist.”
That was Jackie Robinson—a man with a fiery temper, a pugnacious instinct, an abiding instinct to hit back.
And it was that Jackie Robinson who was deeply relieved when Dodgers manager Branch Rickey, assured of Robinson’s success, finally told him that he no longer had to turn the other cheek—that he could straighten his backbone and face down his opponents.
In recalling that conversation, Robinson said: “Ever since the day Mr. Branch Rickey called me into his office and told me I was on my own insofar as non-retaliation, it has been awfully tough for me not to want to hit back when attacked.”
That same inclination also continued long after his baseball years.
In 1962, Robinson traveled to Sasser, Georgia, and stood atop the ashes of a black church scorched because of its efforts to register African American voters. The site made his blood boil, and even more disgusting to him were the snide whites who detested his presence there.
“Frankly,” he said, “when I saw the hate on the faces of some of the people in Sasser, it was impossible for me to follow Dr. King’s most vital piece of advice—to love this kind of person.” In all his fury, Robinson believed that the guilty parties must be brought to justice by “any way” possible.
A year later, when writing about Malcolm X, Robinson stated: “Personally, I am not and don’t know how I could ever be nonviolent. If anyone punches me or otherwise physically assaults me, you can bet your bottom dollar that I will try to give him back as good as he sent.”
In 1964, Robinson attended an NAACP youth banquet crashed by a white supremacist waving a swastika and shouting about “sending all the niggers back to Africa.” When reflecting on the incident, Jackie wrote: “I will be very honest with you. I am not nonviolent in such circumstances. … Not only was my anger rising, but I found that I was rising with every intention of letting this unexpected visitor have a good swift jab in the head.”
Robinson was not nonviolent in matters of foreign policy, either. In 1967, after King delivered his most famous speech denouncing the Vietnam War, Robinson publicly opposed his friend. “I have always believed the best defense is a good offense, especially in the kind of jungle fighting now going on,” Jackie wrote. “I am convinced that we must deal from a position of strength. I have found this to be good policy in athletics and I think it is probably the best policy in war.”
And a year later, not long after King’s assassination, 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, adding that had the opportunity been available to him as a teenager, he too might have become a Black Panther.
In fact, throughout his childhood and teenage years in racially segregated Pasadena, California, physical fights were no stranger to Robinson.
Young Jackie was no doubt inspired to fight back by three lessons taught by his mother Mallie—that the color of his skin was God’s design, that freedom is God’s will for his life, and that God wants him to fight for his freedom right here and now.
Mallie killed her enemies with kindness, but young Jackie was inclined to use his fists.
Just as he was for the rest of his life. With a deep sense of racial pride, an unquenchable thirst for freedom, and an ever-stirring desire to stand up for himself, Robinson could never quite bring himself to become a full-fledged disciple of King and his nonviolent teachings.
But there’s something else to remember: Jackie Robinson never struck anyone during his adult years. He did not hit any of the baseball players who called him “nigger.” He did not pound the white racists of Sasser into submission. He did not pummel the white supremacist who stormed the NAACP banquet. Further, Robinson usually counseled young men and women to follow King and run like hell from Malcolm X.
Robinson was most certainly not like King. He did not extol the nonviolent life of Jesus, or see the image of God in everyone, or envision all lives as capable of redemption.
But in spite of what he said, Robinson was also just like King. He was a pragmatist through and through, and, like King, he fervently believed that it would be suicidal for African Americans to take up arms in pursuit of their civil rights—and that nonviolent tactics can indeed succeed.
Robinson put it this way in a 1960 column about his nonviolent actions in 1947: “I can testify to the fact that it was a lot harder to turn the other cheek and refuse to fight back than it would have been to exercise a normal reaction. But it works, because sooner or later it brings a sense of shame to those who attack you. And that sense of shame is often the beginning of progress.”
So yes, Jackie Robinson was no Martin Luther King, Jr.
But during King’s lifetime, the two were practically brothers-in-arms, nonviolent arms, fiercely dedicated to the belief that nonviolent struggle can—and one day will—redeem the soul of a nation.
Whether they were right is still up to us.