Richard Nixon | John F. Kennedy | Martin Luther King, Jr. | Malcom X
Robinson to Richard Nixon
Criticism of Nixon’s civil rights record received considerable publicity during the 1956 presidential campaign, and one of the most vocal critics was Senator Lehman, who used a nationwide radio broadcast to highlight anti–civil rights votes cast by Nixon in the House and Senate. “Today,” Lehman stated, “Nixon says he is all for civil rights. Which is the truth—the record of his actual votes or his present campaign speeches? Which Richard Nixon would sit in the White House if something happened to President Eisenhower—the anti–civil rights Nixon, or the pro–civil rights Nixon? Who knows? Nobody knows. Let’s not take a chance.” Robinson was familiar with this type of criticism, and in this letter he invites Nixon to respond to the charges. E. Frederic Morrow, referenced below, was Robinson’s good friend and one of the few African Americans employed in the Eisenhower White House, serving as an administrative officer for special projects.
June 25, 1957
My dear Mr. Vice President:
I hope you will not consider me presumptuous, but I feel I must write you about a matter that has been bothering me of late. I have taken note of your speeches and your reports to President Eisenhower on Asia and Africa, and I have developed a deep sense of appreciation for your constant efforts to provide a greater measure of justice for Negro Americans and all others. I have not hesitated to express my feelings to my friends so I have become involved in heated discussions with some of them. They ask, “How can you support Nixon after the poor civil rights record he had in the Senate? Can’t you see he’s making these speeches now with his eye on the presidency in 1960?”
I have expressed my belief in your sincerity and have quoted Fred Morrow to support my beliefs. My friends say, naturally, that Mr. Morrow is “saying what he has to say.”
I am sure you understand that I am not active in partisan politics and do not write either as a Republican or Democrat but as a person seeking reassurance in his beliefs.
Richard Nixon to Robinson
July 12, 1957
This is just a note to thank you for your letter of June 25. I appreciate the sincerity and candor with which you wrote.
Since you were a star player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, I know you realize that anyone who is in the public eye is subject to comment on all kinds of matters. One simply learns to roll with the punches and keeps trying to do as well as one can.
The matter of assuring equal opportunities for all is one of the most important and far-reaching problems facing this nation. Not only is our position a concern domestically, but the decisions made and steps taken are under constant scrutiny abroad. The enactment of Civil Rights legislation is a positive action that can be taken toward living up to our ideals. I believe that we will see passage of Civil Rights legislation during this session of Congress.
It was thoughtful of you to write me and I hope you will not hesitate to do so again.
With every good wish,
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Robinson to John F. Kennedy
With the assistance of the ghostwriter and playwright William Branch, Robinson became a syndicated columnist for the New York Post, a leading liberal newspaper, in April 1959. The column appeared three times a week and addressed any subject of his choosing, usually politics and sports. On May 8, just a few weeks into the new venture, Robinson aired his concerns about “the records of all the leading contenders” for the 1960 presidential election. “I’m remembering, too,” he wrote, “the votes that Sen. Kennedy and some other Northern ‘liberals’ cast to send the 1957 Civil Rights Bill back to committee in a Southernengineered attempt to kill any action by Congress to help Southern Negroes gain the equal voting rights promised them by the Constitution nearly 90 years ago. And I’m wondering just what was said by and to this same Senator behind closed doors at the Southern Governors’ Conference that resulted in his emerging as the fairhaired boy of the Dixie politicians.” Kennedy responded to these concerns in a personal letter, and below is Robinson’s reply.
May 25, 1959
My dear Senator Kennedy:
If you did not attend the Southern Governors’ Conference, the press certainly played up an appearance unjustly. I recall vividly reading of the conference and of the endorsement by the Southern Governors.
Because I spoke of the incident in my column does not mean I do not consider you a very capable man. All of the people we have talked with recognize what you have done and with the exception of your vote to send the 1957 Civil Rights Bill back to Committee, we respect your position. However, regardless of the number of people who voted with you on this bill, for the sake of some 17 million Negro Americans, I do not feel this particular action was in the best interest of all concerned.
As far as Mr. Wilkins is concerned, I still remember the N.A.A.C.P. conference in Detroit where in his speech to the delegates Mr. Wilkins urges us not to forget Senator Kennedy when and if he tried for a national office. I am told you know of this speech, so I need not go into it further.
Senator Kennedy, I assure you I was pleased to get your letter. Your concern about what you feel is unfair certainly adds to the respect I have for you. Yet, I must be honest with you. If our research turns up anything that we feel is against the best interest of all the people, we intend to speak out against it. I am interested, just as you are, in seeing that democracy works for all people and as long as I have a voice, I intend speaking out against what I feel is an injustice. This will be in the field of politics, employment, education and any of their related fields.
I want nothing more than is given to all Americans, and because I believe the Negroes’ stake in America is very strong, I and many Negroes I know intend to press for equal opportunity. Until this end is obtained, sir, I don’t believe our democracy can work completely. I am sure you have to agree the Negro has proven his loyalty to our country. It is now time for our country to prove its loyalty to the Negro as well.
I am well aware of the great number of liberal white people who have contributed greatly toward the progress we have made. Your contribution being among them, but Senator Kennedy, can we measure the progress we have made or do we look at the distance we have to go?
John F. Kennedy to Robinson
Kennedy assures Robinson that his 1957 vote was not anti–civil rights and that he favored a defeated provision—Title III—which would have given the Justice Department the right to sue in cases of school desegregation.
June 18, 1959
Dear Mr. Robinson:
Thank you very much for your friendly response and for your frank exchange of views regarding the need for equal rights for all of our citizens. As I pointed out in my original letter, I believe that we share a deep concern and agree that there are important areas where we have not yet fulfilled the promise of democracy.
Let me just assure you again that I did not attend the Southern Governors’ Conference and that I played no personal part, directly or indirectly, in its deliberations.
I also want to reaffirm the reasons for the vote in 1957 to send the Civil Rights bill back to the Judiciary Committee. I cast this vote, as did Senator Morse and others, on the clear understanding that we would vote to discharge the bill from Committee after ten days. There were ample votes to discharge the bill after that time. Though I thoroughly appreciated the reasons which motivated the majority of the Senate in bypassing the Committee, I did feel that it could create an unfortunate precedent for other types of legislation. I also feel, though this is a matter of judgment, that this vote was a chief reason for the defeat on the floor of Title III, which I considered then and still consider a vital part of any comprehensive civil rights law.
I am enclosing a copy of the letter which I received from Roy Wilkins this past fall as well as a brief resume of my legislative record in civil rights.
Again, best thanks for the letter. I know that we agree fully on the need for further progress both through the law and through the good will of individual citizens.
John F. Kennedy
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Robinson to Martin Luther King, Jr.
At a student rally in Raleigh on April 15, James Lawson, recently expelled from Vanderbilt University for organizing sitins, publicly criticized the NAACP for being too conservative and bourgeois in its focus on lawsuits and fund-raising. Lawson was not a staff member of SCLC at the time, but King seemed on the verge of hiring him. Roy Wilkins sent King a letter complaining about Lawson and warning about the dangers of a split between SCLC and the NAACP. Robinson, by now a board member of the NAACP, echoes Wilkins’s concerns and informs King that his pending perjury trial in Montgomery had given rise to unauthorized fund-raising groups. The latter point was of special interest to Robinson because he was an organizing member of the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King, Jr., which formed in early March to subsidize King’s legal costs and finance SCLC’s efforts to register a million new African American voters in the South.
May 5, 1960
First, let me say how much I respect and appreciate all the good you are doing. You have gained the confidence of people the world over, and for that reason I am concerned about the committees that have sprung up to raise money for your defense in the coming farce trial in Alabama.
I am also quite disturbed because of reports I have been receiving that people who claim to represent the Southern Christian Leadership Conference are saying the N.A.A.C.P. has outlived its usefulness. Let’s not be a party to the old game of divide and conquer. The N.A.A.C.P., as any group, has its faults, but the good the organization has done cannot be measured. Talk like this sets our cause back.
I know you would not be party to any individual or group that would use your misfortune for their own selfish interest. We must be wary of groups who may be doing so.
Please let me know what groups you have authorized to solicit funds in your behalf and what you know about individuals who are knocking the N.A.A.C.P. in promoting the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
I hope you know I am not questioning the need. It’s only that I am concerned.
Martin Luther King, Jr. to Robinson
June 19, 1960
My dear Friend Jackie:
This is to acknowledge receipt of your letter of May 5. First, I must apologize for being so tardy in my reply. Actually, the southern student movement, the court case in Montgomery, Alabama, and other pressing responsibilities have kept me out of my office almost consistently for the last two months. Therefore, I have been thrown almost hopelessly behind in my correspondence. Even when I am in a desperate attempt to play a game of catch up, something else emerges to hold me back. I am sure that you can understand this with all of your busy responsibilities.
I am deeply grateful to you for calling my attention to some maladjustments and unfortunate situations that have developed around fund raising for my defense. Frankly, I did not know about these things, and I would want to investigate them immediately. I would certainly not be a party to anything that would damage fund raising for all organizations in the future.
The only organization raising money for my defense is the Defense Committee which was formed in the home of Harry Belafonte the week after I was indicted in Alabama. As you know, this committee was set up to raise funds for a threefold purpose, namely, my defense, the student movement, and the voter registration drive of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Therefore, the committee had the joint name of “Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Freedom in the South.” The committee took on this threefold responsibility because of a strong appeal that I made the night of the forming of the committee. I tried to make it palpably clear that it was not enough to defend me because in the long run of history it does not matter whether Martin Luther King spends ten years in jail, but it does matter whether the student movement continues, and it does matter whether the Negro is able to get the ballot in the South. I made it clear that I would not be so selfish as to be concerned merely about my defense and not be concerned about the great creative causes that were taking place in the South. And so I said to them that it would not be enough to defend me and then let the organization die which is a projection of me and my personality. I also made the suggestion because I knew that I would be out of circulation for a while, and that I could not raise as much money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as I would ordinarily raise. Therefore, to keep things moving, I felt that it was absolutely imperative that funds be raised for this purpose. Fortunately, the persons present agreed with me. They set up the committee and went out to raise money for these three causes. As you know the committee has made appeals through ads in newspapers, direct mail order appeals, mass meetings, and benefit concerts. As far as I have been able to discern, this committee has operated on the highest level of honesty and integrity. There will be a public accounting of all the money that has been raised and spent in the next few days, and I am sure that the public will agree that it has handled the money properly. As you know, there are always those later problems of organizational differences and the fear on the part of some that something new is offering competition. But I hope no one will get this impression. I have said both publicly and privately that before I become a symbol of division in the Negro community I would retire from the civil rights struggle because I think the cause is too great and too important for a few individuals to halt things by engaging in minor ego battles.
Now to say just a word concerning the second question that you raised with reference to SCLC leaders making derogatory statements concerning the NAACP. I have always stressed the need for great cooperation between SCLC and the NAACP. I have made it clear in all of our board meetings and conference meetings that the NAACP is our chief civil rights organization, and that it has done more to achieve the civil rights of Negroes than any other organization. It, therefore, justifiably deserves our support and respect, and I have constantly said that any Negro who fails to give the NAACP this backing is nothing less than an ingrate. I have always felt that the SCLC could serve as a real supplement for the work of the NAACP, and not a substitute. In areas where the NAACP cannot operate the SCLC can. Also, with the number of ministerial leaders involved in SCLC it has an opportunity to get to the masses in order to mobilize mass action, and assist the NAACP in implementing its great program. So I have never seen any conflict between the two organizations. I only see the possibility of the greatest harmony. If there are those individuals who move under the name of SCLC and say derogatory things about the NAACP I can assure you that they do not speak for me or the organization. They are expressing individual positions which I cannot control. I absolutely agree with you that we cannot afford any division at this time and we cannot afford any conflict. And I can assure you that as long as I am President of SCLC it will not be a party to any development of disunity.
The days ahead are challenging indeed. The future has vast possibilities, and I am convinced that if we will gird our courage and move on in a sense of togetherness and goodwill we will be able to crush the sagging walls of segregation by the battering rams of the forces of justice. In my little way I am trying to help solve this problem. I have no Messiah complex, and I know that we need many leaders to do the job. And I am convinced that with the leadership of integrity, humility, and dedication to the ideals of freedom and justice we will be able to bring into full realization the principles of our American Democracy. Please be assured that you can count on me to give my ultimate allegiance to the cause. Even if it means pushing myself into the background. I have been so concerned about unity and the ultimate victory that I have refused to fight back or even answer some of the unkind statements that I have been informed that NAACP officials said about me and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Frankly, I hear these statements every day, and I have seen efforts on the part of NAACP officials to sabotage our humble efforts. But I have never said anything about it publicly or to the press. I am sure that if criticisms were weighed it would turn out that persons associated with the NAACP have made much more damaging statements about SCLC than persons associated with SCLC have made concerning the NAACP. But I will not allow this to become an issue. The job ahead is too great, and the days are too bright to be bickering in the darkness of jealousy, deadening competition, and internal ego struggles.
I hope that I have in some way answered your very important questions. I am deeply grateful to you for your concern and interest, and always know that I, along with millions of Americans, are deeply indebted to you for your unswerving devotion to the cause of freedom and justice and your willingness at all times to champion the cause of the underdog.
With warm personal regards, I am
Martin L. King, Jr.
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Malcolm X to Robinson
The November 16 column also saw Robinson chiding both Powell (“When we have heard from him it has usually been in the form of some grandstand, publicity-conscious barrage of wild promises which the Congressman failed to keep”) and Malcolm (“Malcolm owes a great deal more to white people than Dr. Bunche ever will. As Dick Gregory says, white people invented the Muslims and the Negroes didn’t even know they existed until the white man put them on his television”). Robinson rebuked Malcolm particularly for not attending the funeral of Medgar Evers. “Malcolm,” he wrote, “is very militant on Harlem street corners where militancy is not dangerous.” (The ellipses below are found in the letter as it was published in the Amsterdam News.)
November 30, 1963
Dear Good Friend, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson:
You became a great baseball player after your White Boss (Mr. Rickey) lifted you to the Major Leagues. You proved that your White Boss had chosen the “right” Negro by getting plenty of hits, stealing plenty of bases, winning many games and bringing much money through the gates and into the pockets of your White Boss.
In those days I was one of your many ardent fans; your speed and shifty base running used to hold me spellbound . . . and, according to the attack you leveled against me and Congressman Powell in your recent column, I must confess that even today you still display the same old “speed,” the same “cunning,” and “shiftiness” . . . and you are still trying to win “The Big Game” for your White Boss.
Shortly after the White Man lifted you from poverty and obscurity to the Major Leagues, Paul Robeson was condemning America for her injustices against American Negroes. Mr. Robeson questioned the intelligence of Negroes fighting to defend a country that treated them with such open contempt and bestial brutality.
Robeson’s brilliant stand in behalf of our people left the guilty American whites speechless: they had no defense.
They sought desperately to find another Negro who would be dumb enough to champion their bankrupt “white” cause against Paul Robeson.
It was you who let yourself be used by the whites even in those days against your own kind. You let them sic you on Paul Robeson.
You let them use you to destroy Paul Robeson. You let your White Boss send you before a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. (the capitol of Segregationville) to dispute and condemn Paul Robeson, because he had these guilty American whites frightened silly.
Your White Boss sent you to Washington to assure all the worried white folks that Negroes were still thankful to the Great White Father for bringing us to America, that Negroes were grateful to America (despite our not being treated as full citizens), and that Negroes would still lay down our lives to defend this white country (though this same white government wasn’t ready nor willing to defend Negroes) . . . even in those days, Jackie!
In this same recent column you also accused me and Dr. Powell of misleading our people. Aren’t you the same exbaseball player who tried to “MISLEAD” Negroes into Nixon’s camp during the last presidential election?
Evidently you were the only Negro who voted for Nixon, because according to the polls taken afterward, very few Negroes were dumb enough to follow your “MISLEAD.”
Today you confess to our people that you now think Nixon would have been the wrong man. Aren’t you also confessing that if Negroes had been dumb enough to follow you three years ago that you would have been guilty of MISLEADING them?
You never gave up. You are now trying to lead Negroes into Nelson Rockefeller’s political camp. If you admit that you were wrong about Richard Nixon three years ago, how are we to be sure that you’ve become so politically mature in the meantime to be right in your choice today? Your “shiftiness” is confusing and very misleading.
We hear that you are about to be appointed Boxing Commissioner of New York State by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Does this have any bearing on your efforts to get Negroes into Rockefeller’s camp? Just who are you playing ball for today, good Friend?
Our people followed you on the football field and the baseball field, but we are cautious and doubtful about your shifty position in this political field.
When Mr. Rickey picked you up from obscurity and made you a Big Leaguer, you never let Mr. Rickey down; and since Mr. Black has given you a wellpaying position with Chock-Full-O-Nuts, you have never let Mr. Black down . . . and now with Mr. Rockefeller promising to make you the Boxing Commissioner of New York State, we know that you can’t afford to let Ole Rocky down.
You have never shown appreciation for the support given you by the Negro masses, but you have a record of being very faithful to your White Benefactors. Perhaps, if Nixon had not been such a relatively poorer man, he too would have fared much better with your support.
Your column also accused me of attacking Dr. Ralph Bunche. This is untrue. I have never attacked Ralph Bunche. No Muslim ever initiates an attack on anyone. Dr. Bunche had attacked the Muslims in general and me in particular from a college campus in the state of Mississippi, and his venomous poison was carried by all the major networks. My reply to Dr. Bunche’s unwarranted attack was made strictly in selfdefense (as is this present letter an answer to your unjust attack).
If Dr. Bunche’s UN position is supposed to confine him to matters “above and beyond” America’s race problems, whenever he does escape the confines of UN protocol, why does he always attack our Muslim religious group? This is the third time he has attacked our religion. Is he antiIslam?
Since he was in Mississippi while making his recent speech, he would have shown more intelligence had he directed his full attention toward the whites in that area who are bombing Negro churches and murdering innocent little Negro girls.
Why waste precious time and energy on us? Muslims don’t bomb churches. Muslims don’t shoot Medgar Evers in the back. Muslims have never lynched anyone.
Dr. Bunche should realize he can’t fight an effective battle on two different fronts at the same time. He can’t fight the Muslims and at the same time be effective against the lynchers of Negroes.
But Dr. Bunche seems more anxious to discredit and destroy the Muslim religious group than he does the white lynchers of Negroes. Whenever I read the speeches he makes for American consumption, I often wonder if his scriptwriter isn’t some anti-Muslim Israeli?
You also quoted the comedian, Dick Gregory, whose scriptwriter has him saying that most Negroes never knew the Muslims existed until the white man put the Muslims on television. I must confess that this is parttrue.
The Muslims have been in the Negro Community for a long time, but Negroes such as yourself, who regard yourselves as Negro “leaders,” never know what is going on in the Negro Community until the white man tells you.
You stay as far away from the Negro Community as you can get, and you never take an interest in anything in the Negro Community until the white man himself takes an interest in it. You, yourself would never shake my hand until you saw some of your white friends shaking it.
Negro “leaders” never knew Muslims existed until the white man discovered them, and right today most of these same Negro “leaders” know about Muslims only what the white man has told them.
Finally, good Friend Jackie: you attacked me for not attending the funeral of Medgar Evers, who was murdered in Mississippi. When I go to a Mississippi funeral it won’t be to attend the funeral of a black man!
And you Negro “leaders,” whose bread and butter depend on your ability to make your white boss think you have all these Negroes “under control,” better be thankful that I wasn’t in Mississippi after Medgar Evers was murdered, nor in Birmingham after the murder of those four innocent little Negro girls.
If my integrity or sincerity is to be measured in your eyesight by my attendance at funerals of Negroes who have been murdered by whites, if you should ever meet with such misfortune I promise to attend your funeral, and then perhaps you will be able to see me in a different light?
If you should ever become as militant in behalf of our oppressed people as Medgar Evers was, the same whites whom you now take to be your friends will be the first to put the bullet or the dagger in your back, just as they put it in the back of Medgar Evers . . .
And I sincerely fear, good Friend Jackie, that if the whites do murder you, you are still gullible enough to die thinking they are still your white friends, and that the dagger in your back is only an accident!
Whereas if whites were to murder me for the religious philosophy that I represent and stand for, I would die KNOWING that it was at the hands of OPEN ENEMIES OF TRUTH AND JUSTICE!
Robinson to Malcolm X
Robinson criticizes Malcolm’s views as “racist” and ridicules his devotion to Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam.
December 14, 1963
Frankly, your letter to me in the New York Amsterdam News is one of the things I shall cherish. Coming from you, an attack is a tribute. I am also honored to have been placed in the distinguished company of Dr. Ralph Bunche, whom you have also attacked.
I am proud of my associations with the men whom you choose to call my “white bosses”—Mr. Branch Rickey, my boss at Chock Full O’ Nuts, Mr. William Black, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. I am also proud that so many others whom you would undoubtedly label as “white bosses,” marched with us to Washington and have been and are now working with our leaders to help achieve equality here in America.
I will not dignify your attempted slur against my appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee some years back. All I can say is that if I were called upon to defend my country today, I would gladly do so. Nor do I hide behind any coattails as you do when caught in one of your numerous outlandish statements. Your usual “out” is to duck responsibility by stating: “The Honorable Elijah Muhammad says . . .”
Personally, I reject your racist views. I reject your dream of a separate state. I believe that many Americans, black and white, are committed to fighting for those freedoms for which Medgar Evers, William Moore, the Birmingham children and President John F. Kennedy died.
Those of us who are so committed have no intention of supporting the idea of a separate black state where the Honorable Muhammad can be the ruler and you his immediate successor—and all because you, Malcolm, hate white people. Too many of our young people have gone to jail and too many millions of dollars have been invested in our fight for equality for us to pay serious heed to your advice. Whether you like this country or not is of little concern to me. America is not perfect, by a long shot, but I happen to like it here and will do all I can to help make it the kind of place where my children and theirs can live in dignity.
As for Governor Rockefeller, I sincerely hope that whatever contribution I can make to his campaign for nomination and election will be meaningful. I don’t know where you went to school, Malcolm. If you attended virtually any Negro college, I venture to say that a Rockefeller helped make your education possible. Neither do I apologize for my support of Mr. Nixon.
If conditions were the same today as they were in 1960, I would still support him. I do not do things to please “white bosses” or “black agitators” unless they are the things which please me. I respect Governor Rockefeller’s leadership of the present and what his family has meant to us in the past. I fully intend to do all I can to aid him.
The fact that I am supporting him does not mean you should. Rest assured, I am not doing so in the hope that you will come aboard.
You say I have never shown my appreciation to the Negro masses. I assume that is why NAACP branches all over the country constantly invite me to address them. I guess this is the reason the NAACP gave me its highest award, the Spingarn Medal, and why Dr. Martin King has consistently invited me to participate in the Southern Freedom Fight and invited me to cochair with him the drive to raise funds to rebuild the burned churches in Georgia. By the way, Malcolm, I don’t remember our receiving your contribution.
Negroes are not fooled by your vicious theories that they are dying for freedom to please the white man. Negroes are fighting for freedom and rejecting your racism because we feel our stake in America is worth fighting for. Whom do you think you are kidding, Malcolm, when you say that Negro leaders ought to be “thankful” that you were not personally present in Birmingham or Mississippi after racial atrocities had been committed there? The inference seems to be that you would have played some dramatic, avenging role. I don’t think you would have.
I think you would have done exactly what you did after your own Muslim brothers were shot and killed in Los Angeles. You left it to the law to take its course.
You mouth a big and bitter battle, Malcolm, but it is noticeable that your militancy is mainly expressed in Harlem where it is safe.
I have always contended for your right—as for that of every American—to say and think and believe what you choose. I just happen to believe you are supporting and advocating policies which could not possibly interest the masses. Thank God for our Dr. Bunche, our Roy Wilkins, our Dr. King, and Mr. Randolph. I am also grateful for those people you consider “white bosses.”
I am glad that I have been able to come through for the people at whom you sneer. I am glad that Negroes spent so many millions for paid admissions to baseball. I am glad that we have sold an awful lot of Chock Full O’ Nuts Coffee. I am hopeful that we will be able to get a great many votes for Governor Rockefeller.
I shall always be happy to associate myself with decent Americans of either race who believe in justice for all. I hate to think of where we would be if we followed your leadership. Strictly in my personal opinion, it is a sick leadership which should rightfully be rejected by the vast majority of Americans.
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