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What Jackie Robinson can teach us about the GLBT rights movement

Cross-posted from Larry’s Phat Page.

For at least a week, I’ve been promising to write an entry inspired by the sports pages of the April 13 edition of USA Today; I’m finally going to get around to doing that tonight. The article focused on a collection of letters written by baseball legend Jackie Robinson, who is best known for breaking the sport’s color barrier in 1947, to Ron Rabinovitz, who is now a 61-year-old salesman in Minneapolis. The two met in 1954, when Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers traveled to Milwaukee, WI, to face the Braves; Rabinovitz, who grew up an hour north of there in Sheboygan, WI, was 7 at the time. Rabinovitz’s father David was a well-known lawyer, and a prominent member of the Democratic National Committee, who would later be appointed to the federal bench by John F. Kennedy.Many of the 18 letters that Rabinovitz still has today talk about various events in either Robinson’s or the younger Rabinovitz’s life. Some of them, however, give us an interesting glimpse into Robinson’s political beliefs, in a time when his mere presence on the baseball field was in many ways a political statement. Robinson was a Republican, and his letters show that his disagreements with the elder Rabinovitz were passionate, yet respectful and dignified — adjectives that could just as easily describe Robinson himself.

(I need to pause here to give you a little political history lesson. At the time Jackie Robinson wrote these letters, during the mid- and late 1950s, the Republican Party was more socially moderate than it is today; its geographical base was the Midwest, although there was a fair bit of GOP support in the West as well. Republicans were unheard of in the South, where a unique brand of Democrats had held almost all political power since Reconstruction; this had a lot to do with hatred of the Republican Abraham Lincoln, who Southerners blamed for the Civil War. Note that Southern Democrats of that era were almost a separate entity from the liberal FDR/New Deal Democrats in the Northeast; they were basically united in name only.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, pushed largely by liberal Northeastern Democrats and moderate Midwestern Republicans, and signed into law by the liberal Texas Democrat Lyndon Johnson, changed everything. Johnson is well-known to have quipped to an aide, “I’ve just handed the South to the Republican Party,” when he signed the bill. LBJ was right; the anti-Christian haters who still to this day dominate Southern culture have largely migrated from the Democratic Party to the GOP. I covered this transformation in more detail last August 23, but the end result has been that the Republicans have become the party we know them to be today: the one that takes up the mantle of hatred, exclusion, and destruction of American democracy. Jackie Robinson was a Republican when most Republicans were decent human beings, and the forces of anti-Christian hatred and bigotry were found in a subset of the Democratic Party.)

Jackie Robinson’s letters to Ron Rabinovitz betrayed a restlessness, a weariness with eighty-odd post-Reconstruction years of Jim Crow, segregation, and racism. It was quite natural, therefore, that Robinson would be at least a little distrusting of Northeastern Democrats, like then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, who were just starting to agitate for government action on civil rights — certainly as long as other forces in the Democratic Party were opposing civil rights so staunchly. These letters from Robinson to Rabinovitz are not only a priceless look into the history of the black civil rights movement of the 1950s; in fact, Robinson’s words still echo true today in another civil rights struggle — that of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans.

I’ll start with a July 1957 letter in which Robinson expresses the same kind of disappointment in the Democrats of his time that gay Americans are feeling today:

We have a real fight on civil rights ahead of us, and it appears we still have some forces to lick. I am still very disappointed in the Democrats and hope we can get some kind of a stand.

Democrats of today, afraid of anything that just maybe possibly might offend even one Satan-motivated “fundamentalist ‘Christian’” hater of God’s GLBT children, would be well advised to take heed of Robinson’s words from December 1959: (minor edits in brackets are mine, for clarity)

It’s quite obvious that the Democrats are run by the Johnsons [LBJ] and [Speaker of the House Sam] Rayburns and I cannot stomach the rest who do not have enough [guts] to make their point of view a factor. Perhaps the rest of the Democrats talk for effect but when important issues come up they can’t do a thing. I expect to go all out for the Republicans.

I would prefer the kind of leadership that at least is honest and expresses its own viewpoint. It may not be the way I believe, but it is at least their opinion and I trust a man who at least stands by his own beliefs. I can’t say as much for the Democrats who promised so much but produced nothing.

In another letter, from fall 1959, Robinson presages why some of today’s gay people might actually become inclined vote for a party that more or less wants them dead:

Tell your father it still appears the Democrats aren’t willing to do anything for civil rights and they will certainly feel it in the coming elections. Sen. Kennedy would really have a tough struggle if he were nominated. We will never forget his apparent pact with the South.

In all honesty, you can just substitute “Clinton” in the places where Jackie Robinson wrote “Kennedy,” and these letters from 50 years ago would be just as valid to describe the civil rights struggles of gay Americans today. I will grant that there is one huge difference between the climate of the late 1950s and today: at least black voters could in good conscience support the Republicans back then, because many Republicans supported civil rights, while gay people who don’t hate their own guts lack that option today. Still, these letters reveal Robinson to have been an extremely prescient, intelligent man, whose basic philosophy on the rights of humankind was truly timeless.

I’ll leave you with some words from the September 1957 letter that Rabinovitz said has most shaped his life. These words are also valid for gay people today, and we ought to strive to live by them as well:

I learned a long time ago that a person must be true to himself if he is to succeed. He must be willing to stand by his principles even at the possible loss of prestige. He must first learn to live with himself before he can hope to live with others.

Always, Jackie

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