Jackie Robinson, born Jan. 31, 1919, is often seen in two ways. One is the fiery ballplayer, spikes flying, ready to steal home. The second is the dignified, quiet man, ready to accept the slings and arrows of racism for the greater good of integrating Major League Baseball and, by implication, the wider American society. But Robinson was more than an infielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was also a political activist, a liberal Republican back when they existed, and a strong supporter of civil rights.
Those elements came together when Robinson accepted an invitation in 1949 to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) against Paul Robeson, another towering African American figure. Robeson, a great athlete hihttp://paul robesonmself at Rutgers, was also a singer, actor, and, to the chagrin of much of Cold War America, a political activist. His voice was “a cavernous roar,” according to one review, and he spent decades on the London stage, where he captivated audiences portraying Othello, among other roles.
He also toured Europe in the 1930s, meeting hostility in Nazi Germany, but greeted as a hero in Stalin’s Soviet Union. He was enthralled by communism. “Like Othello, he loved not too wisely but too well,” notes one author. Robeson’s support for Stalin’s Soviet Union was not a grave problem when he returned to the United States, particularly when the two countries fought together against the Nazis. But when the Cold War emerged in the late 1940s, Robeson declared, “It is unthinkable that American Negros could go to war on behalf of those who oppressed us for generations” against the Soviets. He raised the ire of both liberals and conservatives.
Robinson, as a prominent black American, was called to HUAC to provide a counterbalance. Robinson, a World War II veteran, didn’t buy into Robeson’s views on the Soviet Union. But he was uncomfortable being pitted against another prominent black American. His testimony was restrained, not the fiery Cold War rhetoric that some had hoped for. Robinson said that Robeson “has a right to his personal views and if he wants to sound silly when he expresses them in public, that is his business and not mine.” Robeson refused to attack Robinson as well. He castigated the HUAC committee, expressing disdain for a congressman supportive of the Klan and wondered aloud why Joe DiMaggio wasn’t asked to testify in defense of Italian-Americans. One reporter sensed that Robinson and Robeson were allies, despite their differences, calling the duo “a double play for the ages.”
In 1972, near the end of his life, Robinson concluded that if he had to do it over again he would never have testified against Robeson.