Skip to main content


Jackie Robinson and his son David (then age 11) are interviewed during the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

On a Saturday evening in February of 1966, over a thousand mostly white Republican men and women crowded into a Cleveland hotel banquet hall, eager to hear Jackie Robinson’s opening keynote for the annual Ohio Republican Conference. The baseball icon-turned-political activist did not disappoint.

“I am not what is known as a good Republican,” Robinson declared upon taking the stage. “I am certainly not a safe Republican. I am weary of the black man going hat in hand, shoulders hunched and knee pads worn, to ‘Uncle Tom’ to the enemies of our progress.”

In the context of today’s political chaos, Jackie Robinson’s militant pronouncements feel alien, especially when one surveys the racial wreckage of the modern GOP. The Republican Party’s approach to race right now can best be described as anarchy, as Donald Trump gleefully turns dog-whistle politics into full-blown nuclear alarm.

As party leaders scramble to address the Trump invasion, they’ve sidestepped accountability for the GOP’s role in creating the current climate. Largely absent in all of this are the voices of the party’s racial minorities. A few scattered examples have emerged as critiques of both Trump and the GOP at large, but none have done it with the comprehensive ferocity that rivals that of Jackie Robinson.

For years, conservatives have tried to claim the political legacy of Robinson without acknowledging his actual complicated “militant” politics. Although he campaigned as an independent for Richard Nixon in 1960, later changing his affiliation to Republican, and forged a close working relationship with New York Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Robinson was always cagey about his GOP identification.

“I’m a black man first,” he once calmly stated, while appearing on a 1968 television program, “an American second, and then I will support a political party—third.”

Like the vast majority of black Republicans in 1964, Robinson vehemently opposed Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. That year, he chaired a chapter of “Republicans for Johnson” and likened black Goldwater supporters to racial sellouts and “Uncle Toms.” But his rejection of Goldwater did not affect his affiliation—in fact, he remained a Republican, and in July 1964 he helped found the National Negro Republican Assembly, a national black Republican protest organization that grew out of the nightmarish experience of black Republicans at the 1964 Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.

Arriving at the convention, Republicans were met by the thunderous chants of 50,000 anti-Goldwater protesters, including members of the Congress of Racial Equality, who wore their sharpest funeral attire, carried wooden caskets and held signs reading “Republican Party—Born 1860, Died 1964.” After facing an unyielding assault of taunts, exclusions, racial slurs and physical attacks by white Republicans on the convention floor, all but one of the black GOP delegates, including Robinson, found themselves marching alongside the protesters.

After huddling in a war room at the convention hotel, the demoralized group of black delegates did something unusual for a group of Republicans: They publicly denounced their party’s presidential nominee as racist, called the party’s platform discriminatory and united across ideological lines to create the NNRA, vowing to use the organization to defeat the segment of the GOP that was “determined to establish a lily-white Republican Party.”

Robinson and members of the NNRA remained within the Republican Party in 1964 for three reasons: First, black Republicans—even in 1964—were still more conservative than their Democratic Party brethren. Second, members held fast to a belief in two-party competition, believing that if black voters left the GOP and went to the Democratic Party, one party would eventually take African Americans for granted, while the other would ignore them. Third, black Republicans argued that leaving the GOP would be an act of self-silencing, which would compound the effects of Republican extremism. In essence, NNRA members saw themselves as the conscience of the GOP, keeping the party painfully honest on issues of race and civil rights.

The NNRA became an outspoken civil rights group within the Republican Party. Robinson and the other members envisioned the organization as a “thorn in the flesh” of the GOP—a constant irritant to transform the character of the party and strike at the “heart of white racism.” Today, the notion of black Republican militancy may seem peculiar, but within the context of the Republican Party, Jackie Robinson and the NNRA were indeed militant. African Americans, Robinson once wrote, needed a “riot of black unity” to show white institutions “that we can create a black power structure and that we do not intend to fight this battle as individuals or small groups, but as one people.”

Throughout the 1960s, the group repeatedly rejected white Republican attempts to influence the direction of the organization, chafing at the idea of wearing the “collar of an outside force.” Similarly, for Robinson and the members of the NNRA, one thing remained constant: The problem lay not with African Americans but with the Republican Party itself.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.