Sometimes, the history, it smacks you right in the gob. When it does, we have to ask, why is this man still laughing?
Yes, History’s Yard Waste, old Tanned, Rested and Ready, Richard Nixon, is still relevant today. How does he, Jack Roosevelt Robinson and the Libidinous Visitor connect. Interestingly, in a straight line.
Last night, in part two of “Jackie Robinson” on PBS, (another fine Ken Burns documentary) Robinson’s activism was highlighted. In the 15 years he lived following his retirement in 1957, after his Hall of Fame career ended in 1956, he helped in business, politics and, even though baseball thought they were done with him, baseball itself. In business, he helped Chock Full o’Nuts raise their wages, created Freedom National Bank, once the largest minority-owned bank in America and did commentary for Major League Baseball telecasts on ABC.
Without Robinson, there is no Rosa Parks, desegregation, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X or Barack Obama. Without Robinson, there is no Hank Aaron. Without Robinson, there is no Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson or Redd Foxx. Without Robinson, there might not even be Rock and Roll. He paved the way for so many things in our modern world that we take for granted.
But once again, it all comes back to Nixon. In 1960, Robinson, three years removed from baseball, endorsed then Vice-President Nixon in his race for the White House. He wasn’t impressed by John Kennedy and had known Nixon for many years. Kennedy “wouldn’t look me in the eye,” he recalled. King had also endorsed Nixon. After all, as Burns documentary pointed out, the Republican Party was “the Party of Lincoln,” the man who gave them their freedom.
But, when MLK, Jr. was sentenced to jail and four months on a chain-gang in October, 1960, Robinson was appalled when Nixon didn’t step in and use his influence to get King freed. Kennedy did. Robinson did vote for Nixon in 1960, but never supported him again, especially after 1964, when the GOP nominated Barry Goldwater and renounced President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, which was initiated after the March on Washington in 1963 by Kennedy, where King’s “I have a dream” speech was delivered and still resonates today. Robinson was also there and spoke as well.
Earlier that summer, he spoke out after Bull Connor used attack dogs and fire hydrants on protesters in Birmingham, Alabama. “It amazes me that white Americans are allowing Bull Connor to be their spokesman.” Sound familiar? More on that in a bit.
In 1964, following the assassination of President Kennedy, Robinson backed Nelson Rockefeller for the GOP nomination. After Goldwater became the GOP nominee, Robinson backed Johnson, who got 94% of the black vote in his landslide election.
In 1968, Nixon re-emerged. He spoke to the “silent majority” and wanted “law and order” (mandatory musical requirement here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCy17yF4vKY) restored in America. He had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam and vowed to end it within the first 60 days of his administration. Robinson, who eight years earlier supported him said that, for white Americans, “law and order meant keeping the black man down.”
Which of course, brings us to the current state of our political mess. Donald Trump, a man who, combines both Goldwater and Nixon (hard to do, because those two men despised each other) in both tone and rhetoric, is once again appealing to our darker instincts. Taking extreme positions on everything from immigration to trade. He speaks to the “silent majority” and of “making America great again.” Yet not many have called him out on his positions or his ignorance. For all of their failings, Goldwater and the perpetual 5-o’clock shadow weren’t ignorant. That’s the biggest difference. Plus, whenever you point out the outrageous statements Trump makes to his supporters, they double down. In the words of Dave Anderson, (no relation) the great sportswriter and columnist, when referring to someone complaining about being mistreated, “they know. And they don’t care.” Facts, when it come to Trump, don’t matter. They didn’t matter much to Nixon, either (which begs the question, what if Nixon called and had Martin Luther King, Jr. out on bond instead of Kennedy? Would he of become President in 1960? One of history’s mysteries).
But they mattered for Jackie Robinson, who, through his actions and deeds, paved the way for so many people, black, white, Hispanic, women and the disabled, died in 1972 at the age of 53. In his last public appearance, at game two of the 1972 World Series, where he threw out the ceremonial first pitch, he continued his activism, saying, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.” It would be another two years before fellow Hall of Famer Frank Robinson would accomplish that milestone.
Also, he didn’t live to see the Trickster crush McGovern in 1972 and then resign in disgrace in 1974. He never saw the rise of Reagan and the religious wrong and the stealing of the 2000 election. He never saw the triumph of Barack Obama in 2008, becoming our first black President. But were he alive today, he would recognize the same problems that faced America in his lifetime, unequal justice, voting rights, discrimination, inequality, segregation, wage stagnation, profiling and the lack of opportunity for so many, that he’d be fighting just as hard.