Jackie Robinson & the 1964 GOP Convention: Power, Politics & Racism

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

As I watch the antics of Donald Trump and his campaign, especially when I see people of color being thrown out of campaign rallies, and sometimes physically and verbally abused in the process my mind goes back to the 1964 Republican Convention. That was fifty-two years ago, and it was frighteningly similar to some of the things happening today.

The convention took place on the heels of the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and during the Freedom Summer. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had given his I Have a Dream Speech a year before; it seemed that in much of the land that Abraham Lincoln’s New Birth of Freedom was actually becoming a reality. But somehow instead of welcoming that progress, the GOP rejected the tenants of Lincoln, rejected the efforts of Grant, and turned its back on the men who had given their lives to end slavery, and bring about emancipation and equality for African Americans.

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The delegates of the convention rejected their leaders who had supported the Voting Rights Act and turned to the dark world overt, and covert neo-Confederate racism and turned to conservative Senator Barry Goldwater as their standard bearer. They courted the support of Southern Democrats who opposed voting rights and civil rights for Blacks and that “Southern strategy” would be fully implemented by the 1972 Nixon Campaign and is the regional bedrock of the GOP today. The delegates voted down a provision in the party platform that pledged support for the Voting Rights act and full civil rights for blacks. Commenting on the Freedom Summer and the civil rights movement, a Republican aide at the 1964 convention told a reporter, “the nigger issue was sure to put Goldwater in the White House.”

One of the delegates at the convention was baseball legend and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson. Robinson had retired from the game a few years before and was a supporter of the progressive, New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller who was battling Goldwater for the nomination. Robinson had been a Republican for many years and he had given up his job as a spokesman for and Vice President of the Chock Full O’Nuts Coffee Company to assist Rockefeller’s campaign in 1964.

Robinson knew what it was like to be the “point man” in the integration of baseball and in his career was threatened with physical violence and death on many occasions. Some teammates circulated petitions that they would not play for a team that had a “black” on it. Robinson, encouraged by Rickey persevered and became an icon in baseball, the Civil Rights movement and the history of the United States. However, not even 10 years after his retirement from baseball and 2 years after he was elected to the Hall of Fame he once again discovered just how deep racism still ran in this country.  As he attended the convention FBI agents and other Federal authorities attempted to find the bodies of three young voting rights staff that were part of the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign in Mississippi. Eventually, later in the summer the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner would be discovered buried in the base of a dam near Philadelphia Mississippi. Their killers were local law enforcement officers and members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Robinson wrote of his experience at the 1964 Convention:

“I wasn’t altogether caught of guard by the victory of the reactionary forces in the Republican party, but I was appalled by the tactics they used to stifle their liberal opposition.  I was a special delegate to the convention through an arrangement made by the Rockefeller office. That convention was one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of my life. The hatred I saw was unique to me because it was hatred directed against a white man.  It embodied a revulsion for all he stood for, including his enlightened attitude toward black people.

A new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP.  As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.

The same high-handed methods had been there.

The same belief in the superiority of one religious or racial group over another was here.  Liberals who fought so hard and so vainly were afraid not only of what would happen to the GOP but of what would happen to America.  The Goldwaterites were afraid – afraid not to hew strictly to the line they had been spoon-fed, afraid to listen to logic and reason if it was not in their script.

I will never forget the fantastic scene of Governor Rockefeller’s ordeal as he endured what must have been three minutes of hysterical abuse and booing which interrupted his fighting statement which the convention managers had managed to delay until the wee hours of the morning.  Since the telecast was coming from the West Coast, that meant that many people in other sections of the country, because of the time differential, would be in their beds.  I don’t think he has ever stood taller than that night when he refused to be silenced until he had had his say. 

It was a terrible hour for the relatively few black delegates who were present.  Distinguished in their communities, identified with the cause of Republicanism, an extremely unpopular cause among blacks, they had been served notice that the party they had fought for considered them just another bunch of “niggers”.  They had no real standing in the convention, no clout.  They were unimportant and ignored.  One bigot from one of the Deep South states actually threw acid on a black delegate’s suit jacket and burned it.  Another one, from the Alabama delegation where I was standing at the time of the Rockefeller speech, turned on me menacingly while I was shouting “C’mon Rocky” as the governor stood his ground.  He started up in his seat as if to come after me.  His wife grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

“Turn him loose, lady, turn him loose,” I shouted.

 I was ready for him.  I wanted him badly, but luckily for him he obeyed his wife…” (From Jackie Robinson “I Never Had it Made” Chapter XV On Being Black Among the Republicans)

http://www.c-span.org/video/?c3807346/governor-nelson-rockefeller-addresses-64-convention

During his speech to insert pro-civil rights language into the party platform, which was interrupted many times by Goldwater supporters, Rockefeller spoke words that were eerily prophetic:

“The Republican party is in real danger of subversion by a radical, well-financed and highly disciplined minority.” At that time I pointed out that the purpose of this minority were “wholly alien to the sound and honest conservatism that has firmly based the Republican party in the best of a century’s traditions, wholly alien to the sound and honest Republican liberalism that has kept the party abreast of human needs in a changing world, wholly alien to the broad middle course that accommodates the mainstream of Republican principles.” (The full text is here: http://www.rockarch.org/inownwords/nar1964text.php )

Pioneering African American journalist and news anchor Belva Davis, who then a young journalist wrote of her experiences at that convention:

While the Goldwater organization tried to keep its delegates in check on the floor, snarling Goldwater fans in the galleries around us were off the leash. The mood turned unmistakably menacing…

Suddenly Louis and I heard a voice yell, “Hey, look at those two up there!” The accuser pointed us out, and several spectators swarmed beneath us. “Hey niggers!” they yelled. “What the hell are you niggers doing in here?’”

I could feel the hair rising on the back of my neck as I looked into faces turned scarlet and sweaty by heat and hostility. Louis, in suit and tie and perpetually dignified, turned to me and said with all the nonchalance he could muster, “Well, I think that’s enough for today.” Methodically we began wrapping up our equipment into suitcases.

As we began our descent down the ramps of the Cow Palace, a self-appointed posse dangled over the railings, taunting. “Niggers!” “Get out of here, boy!” “You too, nigger bitch!” “Go on, get out!” “I’m gonna kill your ass!”

I stared straight ahead, putting one foot in front of the other like a soldier who would not be deterred from a mission. The throng began tossing garbage at us: wadded up convention programs, mustard-soaked hot dogs, half-eaten Snickers bars. My goal was to appear deceptively serene, mastering the mask of dispassion I had perfected since childhood to steel myself against any insults the outside world hurled my way.

Then a glass soda bottle whizzed within inches of my skull. I heard it whack against the concrete and shatter. I didn’t look back, but I glanced sideways at Louis and felt my lower lip began to quiver. He was determined we would give our tormentors no satisfaction.

“If you start to cry,” he muttered, “I’ll break your leg.” (Belva Davis “Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman’s Life in Journalism) 

The sad thing is that in many states the new GOP has taken a page out of the past and has been either passing legislation or attempting to pass legislation that makes it harder for Blacks and other minorities to vote. Groups have shown up armed at heavily black polling sites in recent elections and efforts have been made to ensure that minorities cannot vote. They have also challenged the 1964 Voter’s Rights Act in Court and have a friend in Justice Antonine Scalia who called the act a “racial entitlement” and violation of State sovereignty.

The tactics used are quite similar to those used in the Deep South prior to 1964 that made it virtually impossible for a Black man or woman to cast a vote, and if they tried even to register to vote did so at the peril of their lives or families. The opponents of integration, voter’s rights, and equal rights used of the same lines currently used today against those that support these rights. Support civil rights for unpopular groups and you are labeled as a Communists sympathizer, Socialist, Atheist, or that you are Anti-Christian, Anti-American, Anti-Constitution. The sad thing is that many of the most vicious users of such untruths are supposedly conservative “Christian” politicians, pundits, and preachers.

I don’t think that Jackie Robinson would be surprised, now some 52 years later that racial attitudes in much of America have changed so little.

These are hard things to look at and it is far easier to believe myth than it is to actually seek truth. A few years back I cannot every in a million years having written this article. However the threats to minorities be they racial, religious or even gender have become part an parcel of the new GOP, the GOP that I could not remain a part of when I returned from Iraq.

I guess that I am becoming a Civil Rights advocate, or then, maybe it’s that I’m actually becoming more of a Christian. Branch Rickey said “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.”  I may not be able to do something about racism and other prejudice everywhere but I can do it here and wherever I work or preach.

For me it doesn’t really doesn’t matter so long as I can live with myself. I would rather be in the same camp as people like Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and Nelson Rockefeller, than Trump, Scalia or the others that seek to keep people down simply because of their ethnicity, race, religion, or sexual orientation. I have an obligation to speak out for the rights of African Americans as well as every American whose rights are being threatened. As Martin Niemoller said:

First they came for the communists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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1 Comment

Filed under civil rights, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

One response to “Jackie Robinson & the 1964 GOP Convention: Power, Politics & Racism

  1. Larry Condra

    Thanks Steve for this excellent summary and sad look back at the 60s opposition by whites to civil rights for African-Americans.

    I never knew Jackie Robinson had written about is experiences at the GOP 1964 Convention.

    I would add a bit of historical John Birch Society “thinking” on Civil Rights. The Birch society saw The Civil Rights Movement as a disruptive and subversive force in America. Since the CRM urged Federal action and intervention into State laws (especially in the South), the common “conservative” theme of Big Government telling us what to do was used back then too! The unspoken assumption was that if you are a white person then it is your constitutional right to discriminate, hurt, injure and destroy any African-American you want to and no Federal laws should “trump” state or local laws voted for by the (white) citizens!

    When I was a kid I attended some Birch meetings and i remember seeing a reproduction of an old Communist Party USA booklet from the 1920s (I believe) in which they urged civil rights for American African-Americans. This booklet (which the Birchers had reprinted and distributed) was used as “proof” by the them that the idea of Civil Rights for African-Americans was a communist idea!
    What more proof would anyone need? If the communist are “for” something then it must be bad.

    And since Rockefeller and other “liberal” Republicans endorsed Civil Rights too, then they too were part of the conspiracy to install communism! See, it all makes perfect sense (LOL)!

    Naturally, we see the same kind of looney, logical deductions in today’s GOP and among far-right pundits and presidential candidates. Its scary to see so many people are so dumb and uninformed.

    I look forward to reading your very thoughtful – and thought provoking- pieces!

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