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[Detail] Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese

Historical Comprehension: Jackie Robinson as a Community Leader

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Jackie Robinson was celebrated both as an athlete and as a social figure. On December 8, 1956, Robinson was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an annual prize for outstanding achievement by an African American. The citation accompanying the medal recognized Robinson’s "superb sportsmanship, his pioneer role in opening up a new field of endeavor for young Negroes, and his civic consciousness."

One month later, Jackie Robinson retired from baseball after being traded to the New York Giants. He became Vice-President of Community Affairs for the restaurant chain, Chock Full O’ Nuts. He also served as Chairman of the NAACP’s Freedom Fund campaign, seeking to raise one million dollars. Frank van der Linden asked Robinson about his role with the NAACP during an April 14, 1957 appearance on Meet the Press:

Mr. Van der Linden: As a leader of NAACP, would you use the money to hire lawyers, for instance, to press school segregation cases?

Mr. Robinson: I want to make one thing clear: I am not what you call a leader of the NAACP. . . . They have asked me if I would head the Freedom Fund for this year - their campaign - and I said yes. . . . I don't touch the money; I don't see it when it goes in. I have nothing to do with it.

After Robinson was pressed on the subject, however, he said that he imagined the funds were "going to be used in our fight to achieve first-class citizenship. . . . Money is needed to hire lawyers to handle these specific cases. . . . I don't know whether the Freedom Fund is used for lawyers or whether it goes through the other branch that they have." Later in the interview, Robinson is described as "one of the leaders of your race" before being asked about the "responsibility of the Negro himself and, maybe, of the NAACP" in reducing the high crime rate among African Americans.

  • Why do members of the press consider Robinson a "leader" of the NAACP and of African Americans in general?
  • Why does Robinson initially contest the notion of being a leader of the NAACP?
  • How might the NAACP describe Robinson’s role in the organization as a chairman for a campaign fund?
  • Do you think Robinson felt obligated to explain where he thought the NAACP money might go? Why might he have felt such obligation despite having explained that he wasn't an NAACP leader?
  • Is there a difference between being a "leader" and, as the Spingarn Medal notes, having a "civic consciousness"?
  • How does Robinson’s role in the African-American community compare to other recipients of the Spingarn Medal such as W.E.B. DuBois (1920), George Washington Carver (1923), Richard Wright (1941), and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1957)?
  • To what extent are a leader's responsibilites taken upon by one's self and to what extent are they created by others' perceptions and expectations?