Our nation’s monuments to our civil rights icons are all around us. We only have to know where to look.
Look around the epicenter of the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln memorials and you cannot miss the statuesque stone monument to the leader of the movement that gave America the last bit of greatness the Constitution failed to bestow: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s towering figure is right where he ought to be.
But you can be in our nation’s capital all your life and still not see another national monument (of sorts) to yet another transformational icon of America’s civil rights crusade. To see it, you must gain access to the oddly shaped modern building at 935 Pennsylvania Ave. NW: the J. Edgar Hoover Building, headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And you must know what you are looking for: the FBI’s file on Jackie Robinson.
Years before we had King or bus boycotts or lunch counter sit-ins or desegregated schools, we had one icon in the struggle for human equality who stood head-and-shoulders above all others. Even when he was sprawled on the ground, sliding in the dirt, jabbing the toe of his spiked shoe beneath Yogi Berra’s big outstretched mitt, stealing home in the World Series against the Yankees in the 1955 World Series.
Yes, we had Jackie Robinson. America’s national pastime was a whites-only game until Robinson took the field wearing his Brooklyn Dodgers’ blue number 42 on April 15, 1947.
Do not despair if you haven’t found the FBI’s Robinson file. It’s been overlooked by the best. Most recently, it was never mentioned in Ken Burns’ otherwise superb documentary on Robinson that the Public Broadcasting Service aired this week. So viewers missed getting a VIP tour of the FBI’s paper monument to the way Robinson was officially treated during the Red Scare era. FBI director Hoover was sure the civil rights movement was in cahoots with the Communist Party in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
The FBI’s Robinson file began even before he’d played his first game for the Dodgers. After Robinson signed his first Dodgers’ minor league contract, a June 1, 1946, FBI memo said the pro-communist newspaper the People’s Voice reported Robinson had accepted the chairmanship of the New York State Organizing Committee for United Negro and Allied Veterans of America, or UNAVA. Both House and Senate committees called UNAVA a “communist front” that sought “to provoke racial friction.” And a 1947 letter by then-Attorney General Tom Clark (who later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice) called UNAVA “subversive and among the affiliates and committees of the Communist Party, U.S.A., which seeks ‘to alter the form of government of the United States by unconstitutional means.’”
Even the most noble civil rights endeavor could be made to appear menacing in an FBI agent’s report: “On February 15, 1952, (a deleted source) who has furnished reliable information in the past, stated that the Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown, New York announced that Jackie Robinson, famous Dodger baseball star, told the committee he would cooperate with them to end discrimination in Levittown, New York.”
Burns’ documentary did a mostly masterful job of covering the complexity of Robinson, who often championed Republicans as the party of Abraham Lincoln and even supported Richard Nixon for a while against John F. Kennedy. But in 1968, Robinson became furious when Nixon wouldn’t campaign in Harlem and began campaigning for Democrat Hubert Humphrey.
But you need to peek inside the FBI’s Robinson file to get the rest of the story. Once inside the White House, Nixon’s counsel, John Ehrlichman, who ironically would later go to prison for his role in Nixon’s Watergate scandal cover-up, asked Hoover send him anything the FBI had on Robinson. Hoover responded promptly.
The FBI had dug up no crime-stopping dirt. But Hoover’s July 24, 1969, “Dear Mr. Ehrlichman” letter added a bonus to sweeten that news — an attached memo that summarized the entire FBI file on Robinson’s civil rights advocacy.
Hoover’s memo also included a Sept. 13, 1968, United Press International article quoting Robinson as having told a press conference: “The Black Panther organization is one with an interest in seeking peace and reports otherwise are due to misinformed newsmen. Improper reporting has determined that they are a militant group while the fact is they are seeking peace.” Hoover added, helpfully: “The Black Panther Party has been described as a black extremist, militant, violence-prone organization whose members have been involved in confrontations with law enforcement officers.”
Actually, Robinson was often critical of militant black activists — and they in turn attacked him as being out of touch and some called him an “Uncle Tom.”
But Hoover catered to his elite audience. And Robinson catered only to his cause.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.