For nearly three years now, the public has grappled with Colin Kaepernick using the American flag and the national anthem as a vehicle to protest the condition of African Americans in current society. The actions of Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos have been the instantly-recognized parallels to his act. But there was another, from that same time period and from as iconic a figure, that connects Kaepernick to that era and its meaning, and vice versa.
“As I write this twenty years later,’’ Jackie Robinson once wrote, recalling the ceremonies before Game 1 of the 1947 World Series to cap his historic entrance into major-league baseball, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, in 1919 at my birth, I know that I never had it made.’’
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) April 16, 2018
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Those words came straight from the preface of his 1972 autobiography, “I Never Had It Made.’’ The book became the final statement from the man on his life, career, perspectives and lessons. It was released four days after his death on Oct. 24 of that year at age 53.
Baseball is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Robinson’s birth this season, and the latest annual Jackie Robinson Day has arrived with every player wearing his now-retired uniform No. 42. As this, the words of the man who integrated baseball in the modern era pack as much of a punch and carry as much weight as they did 47 years ago when they were published.
It still is, in the opinion of many, to be the best resource on Robinson, and helps form the foundation of his narrative to this day. It was the last of no fewer than three autobiographies, preceded by volumes in 1948 and 1964, each with more gravitas than the previous.
The battle between portraying him as a static, by-the-numbers hero and as the flesh-and-blood, sometimes-flawed human never ends. But “I Never Had It Made” remains the closest thing to a word-of-mouth relaying of who he was, and a springboard to more complete renditions of him (like, for example, the excellent “Jackie Robinson” PBS documentary by Ken Burns in 2016).
Observers are, at times, astonished by the strength, relevance and staying power of what Robinson poured onto fewer than 300 pages as he simultaneously wrestled with the health crises that eventually took his life — and by the unwavering, unforgivable bluntness of his words.
Such as those, at the very beginning of his autobiography, that essayed an issue that has persisted nearly five decades later. And the phrase that became the book’s title, one he mentioned often, including the epilogue, in which he answers his own question of how he could even hint that someone as accomplished and groundbreaking as he was could claim that he never “had it made.”
“I cannot possibly believe I have it made while so many of my black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity as they live in slums or barely exist on welfare,’’ Robinson wrote. “I cannot say I have it made while our country drives full speed ahead to deeper rifts between men and women of varying colors, speeds along a course toward more and more racism.’’
To repeat, he wrote this in 1972.
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“It’s powerful,’’ said Yohuru Williams, dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of St. Thomas and a Robinson historian. The book, he said, is “the brutally honest appraisal of a man who could not have known that death was upon him, in many ways. In the midst of all that, to his core, in retrospect, he wanted to make clear that none of this was promised, no matter how much success a black man in America had.
“Here’s Jack,’’ Williams added, “in this moment, when they order you not to do this, always finding the way to use his platform. Imagine doing that in his day — when you know how hard it is to do that today, he did it then when you really could not.’’
Another example of that arose even more recently than Kaepernick’s actions. When southern California rapper Nipsey Hussle was shot to death in front of his store two weeks ago, author and Grand Valley State University history professor Louis Moore wrote for The Shadow League about the importance of black entrepreneurship, celebrities using their reach for economic uplift and the ultimate responsibility to build broken areas and the people in them.
Moore’s reference point: “I Never Had It Made.”
“I went back to the Freedom Bank chapter,’’ he said — chapter 17, about the black-owned, black-operated bank in Harlem Robinson helped open in the 1960s.
He quoted, in part, this portion: “During the post-baseball years, I became increasingly persuaded that there were two keys to the advancement of blacks in America — the ballot and the buck.’’
“I always go to it,’’ said Moore, who cited the book in his extensive 2017 history of athletes and activism, “We Will Win the Day.” “I always go to Jackie. It’s him. He doesn’t pull any punches.’’
Moore’s example, like the others, illustrated what has both made “I Never Had It Made” stand the test of time and stand out as essential to a reading of his life and impact. Unlike the hundreds of other published tales of Robinson’s legend, this was not, by any standard, a baseball book. At most, one-third of the book details his career, from Branch Rickey signing him to the Dodgers organization to his retirement.
The rest details, first, how he became the person, rather than the player, with the will to withstand the so-called “Noble Experiment,’’ and then how he stayed engaged with society, politics, his family and all the challenges they presented, for the 16 years he lived beyond his baseball career.
So, it includes his own accounts of being raised in segregated Pasadena, Calif., his UCLA years, his military service and the notorious court-martial stemming from his refusal to move from the front of an Army bus. Post-baseball, it continues through his pioneering business career, his political ties and un-ties with the likes of John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, his civil rights activities and various alliances, feuds and disagreements with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and his ever-watchful eye on the sport that celebrated its notion of successful integration via his career, but which constantly fell short of true equality by his more exacting standards.
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Even amidst the retelling of his Dodgers career, Robinson interspersed the personal, with his marriage to Rachel and the challenges of raising a family, and the political. That included his polarizing 1949 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee about fellow athlete-celebrity-activist Paul Robeson. He laid bare his conflicted feelings then and years afterward, trying to reconcile the damage he did, the shift in his understanding of who Robeson was and what he was about, and illuminating aspects of his statement (condemning America’s ongoing Jim Crow climate) that were overlooked then and in many ways still are.
“As I read it, he kind of pushed baseball to the side, with all the myths about him and who it made him out to be, and he emphasizes the political and the racial,’’ said historian and award-winning author Arnold Rampersad, who in 1997 wrote the authoritative “Jackie Robinson: A Biography.’’
The chapter titles are enough of a road map to that, and a jarring reminder of how unresolved Robinson’s battles remain these many years later: “Campaigning for Nixon,” “On Being Black Among the Republicans,” “Hope and Disillusionment in White Politics.’’
Two late chapters are painfully poignant, personal and, again, relevant today — and, again, are often overlooked in the increasing attempts to build him into a plaster saint. “Jackie’s Prison” and “… And He Was Free” address the drug addiction of oldest son Jackie Jr., his rehab and turn toward helping other addicts, his death in a car accident at 24, and the elder Robinson’s grief and reconciliation with the pressure of growing up in a famous household and his grappling with his role in it all.
“Jack’s aunthencitiy is on display in a very obvious way,” Williams said. “He’s complicated. He doesn’t have to be perfect; he just has to make you think.”
“I Never Had It Made” was co-written by the late Alfred Duckett, an author who had assisted Robinson with his 1950s and ‘60s newspaper columns and had co-authored King’s seminal “Why We Can’t Wait.’’ The book had a handful of factual gaps, said Rampersad, who referred to it in his work — but, he added, it was a honest reflection of Robinson’s views.
“It was very combative,’’ he said, “but I always thought he never crossed any lines, because he stood for the truth.’’
That he bared his soul in that way for the record gains urgency because, in retrospect, there was more urgency to writing it than even he could have realized.
“These really were his final words,’’ Moore said. “You got the sense there was no Part Two.’’
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It’s a loss for everybody, he said: “You like to think that Jackie would hold our athletes accountable in the ‘70s and ‘80s had he lived, but he never got a chance to do that. You’d like to see what he’d say about O.J., for instance.’’
A void that has been filled by polishing a conveniently bloodless image, Williams said, can be filled better with what Robinson himself left: “Jack, at every chance, refused to ride off into the sunset. Jack’s own writings and own words have prevented us from making him into a hero in soft focus.”
What he left is an indelible record of who he was, how he thought and for what he stood — and for what he did not.