The Spine

Jackie Robinson's Rhetorical Home-run


I was sitting outside in the Cambridge sun and browsing through some
publishers' catalogues for books being published next fall. A rich crop,
it seems to me. Times Books, an imprint at Henry Holt, is putting out a
book, First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson,
in October. Edited by Michael G. Long, it comes with a foreword from my
good friend Henry Louis Gates, a professor of Afro-American Studies at
Harvard and an off-and-on contributor to TNR.

There is an excerpt from a letter from Robinson to President Eisenhower
printed in the catalogue. It is at once reasonable and stirring. Frankly,
it brought tears to my eyes.

"My Dear Mr. President:

"I was sitting in the audience at the Summit Meeting of Negro Leaders
yesterday, when you said we must have patience. On hearing you say this, I
felt like standing up and saying, "Oh, no! Not again."

"I respectfully remind you, sir, that we have been the most patient of all
people. When you said we must have self-respect, I wondered how we could
have self-respect and remain patient considering the treatment accorded us
through the years.

"Seventeen million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts
of men to change..."

There are three other paragraphs as eloquent and as sensible as those
above. And it ends with the words, "Respectfully yours, Jackie Robinson."

Jackie Robinson was as much a pioneer in the struggle for equal rights and,
in his own way, as brave as Frederick Douglas. He suffered indignities
meted out from the bleachers and the stands. I cannot wait to read the
rest of these letters. And particularly the responses to those he
addressed ... like Dwight David Eisenhower.

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