"I Never Had It Made" Revisited; the Political, Economic, and Social Ideology of Jackie Robinson

Article excerpt

"I Never Had It Made" Revisited; The Political, Economic, and Social Ideology of Jackie Robinson

In 1995, the Ecco Press re-released Jackie Robinson's last autobiography, I Never Had It Made. Harvard professor Cornel West states that the book revealed why and how Jackie Robinson's life was exemplary of the black and human "`Love Supreme' -- the same moral and spiritual ideal toward which Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and John Coltrane asked us to aspire." By successfully integrating Organized Baseball, an almost super human feat that taxed his athletic skills and personal resources, Robinson paved the way for integrating all of America's professional sports. His athletic prowess also inspired other African Americans to strive for excellence and social acceptance in other areas of American life.

Despite the numerous books on Robinson the ballplayer, very few draw attention to his role as a social activist. Since Robinson's last autobiography was published during the era commonly referred to as the Black Power Movement, this paper will attempt to contextualize Jackie Robinson's political, economic, and social perspective within the framework of the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power phase of the movement. Three themes will serve to guide the essay: Robinson's efforts to utilize his celebrity status as a bridge to prominent political figures; the central ideology that constituted the Black Power Movement; and his perspective regarding what constitutes "having it made" in American society.(2)

At the forefront of Robinson's political, economic, and social ideology was his efforts to utilize his role as a pioneer to eliminate racial barriers as a means of furthering group assimilation. While his commitment to black and white cooperation was both practical and ideological, emotionally and temperamentally Jackie Robinson was a "race man" from the day he received his first insult and decided to fight back. Upon his retirement from the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1957, Robinson's role as both a fund raiser and spokesman for the NAACP placed him at the vanguard for the struggle for equality. Although Robinson was not actively involved in the Black Power struggle, his last autobiography reflected the mood, the disillusionment with white society that was commonly attributed to the movement. Although Robinson diametrically opposed Malcolm X along ideological grounds, his perspective began to reflect much of the black Muslim leader's philosophy, particularly in terms of economic advancement and self-identity. Advocating Black Power as Black Capitalism, the Dodger legend went beyond the ideal of integration to self-sufficiency, to economic power rather than goodwill as a means to achieve equality. Finally, his perception of what it meant to "have it made" in American society illustrated the collectivist notion of group advancement that has permeated African American thought.

In order to understand Jackie Robinson's political, economic, and social perspective within the framework of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power phase of the movement, it is necessary to summarize his life after baseball. Robinson's retirement from the game was embroiled in controversy. As early as 1953, the Dodger legend began to reassess his future. By 1955 and 1956, his performance on the diamond faltered, after eight seasons in which he never batted below .296. Robinson played in only 105 games during the Dodgers' world championship season of 1955, batting only .256. He rebounded somewhat the following year, appearing in 117 games, hitting .275, and delivering a memorable game-winning hit in the World Series against the New York Yankees.

In December 1956 Robinson met William Black, chief executive officer of Chock Full O' Nuts, a New York fast food restaurant chain. Black typified the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches success story in America. In the 1920s, he started selling shelled nuts at a staircase in the Old Times Building on Forty-second Street. …