During Black History Month, there are a few obligatory staples and customs that all black kids in America come to expect: the Black History Month assembly where a vivacious and chubby child recites MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” with the cadence of a LisaRaye performance; brief history lessons about Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King and of course, Rosa Parks; being regaled by rousing renditions of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by your church’s youth choir for the youth ministry’s Black History Month program; and another recitation of “Still I Rise.”
Among these mainstays are classrooms festively bordered with pictures of exceptional and world-renowned African-American professionals and entertainers: people such as Mae C. Jamison, Malcolm X, Duke Ellington, Jackie Robinson and the body that formerly housed the soul of famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Football legend and activist Jim Brown was a former Richard Nixon supporter and recent Trump advocate, and he has a seldom-discussed history of domestic violence. Civil rights leader, organizer and activist Bayard Rustin publicly repudiated the leaders of the Black Campus Movement—a struggle waged by black college students to reform higher education—and implored college officials to “stop capitulating to the stupid demands of Negro students.” You can peer into the life of many a lauded hero and find a few contradictions that are difficult to reconcile.
So in the spirit of realistic approaches to our more complex and notable Negroes, it’s time to broach another sobering aspect of black history: Jackie Robinson was kind of an opp, and he made some political moves that today would elicit a lot of ire.
What’s also true is that, well … his position and visibility were often weaponized by influential white people to publicly demonize and chastise black radicals and assure the white public that such politics did not reflect the will and morals of the black community.
In April 1949, when the Cold War began to intensify, actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson traveled to France to attend the Soviet Union-sponsored Paris Peace Conference. After singing “Joe Hill,” Robeson addressed the audience and offered some impromptu words about the lives of black people in the United States, as he often did. Robeson’s aim was to stress that World War III was not inevitable, as many Americans did not want war with the Soviet Union.
It was the beginning of the end for Robeson, who would soon be declared “the Kremlin’s voice of America” by a witness at hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee. At this hearing, committee Chair John Wood, a Georgia Democrat, summoned baseball great Jackie Robinson to Washington to testify before HUAC for the purpose of implicating Robeson as a Communist (which he was) and obliterating Robeson’s leadership role in the American black community.
In his testimony, Robinson assured Americans that Robeson did not speak for all blacks with his “silly” personal views. Former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt noted, “Mr. Robeson does his people great harm in trying to line them up on the Communist side of [the] political picture. Jackie Robinson helps them greatly by his forthright statements.” This was especially hard for Robeson, as he was one of Robinson’s most ardent and vocal advocates and once called for boycotts of Yankee Stadium as a response to baseball’s lack of integration.
But the backlash against Robeson was immediate. His blacklisting and the revocation of his passport rendered him unable to work or travel, and he saw his yearly income drop from more than $150,000 to less than $3,000. Robeson’s name was stricken from the college All-America football teams. Newsreel footage of him was destroyed, recordings were erased and there was a clear effort in the media to avoid any mention of his name.