Seventy-five years ago today (April 15), Jackie Robinson became the first African American player in the modern era to play for a Major League Baseball team. Every player and coach today will wear number 42 on their backs in honor of Robinson. Since 2004, “Jackie Robinson Day” has served as an opportunity to celebrate Jackie Robinson’s pathbreaking career and, more recently, his contributions to the American civil rights movement.
But we should also celebrate Robinson’s role as one of the first people to engage in a related, equally transformative endeavor. Documents housed in Michigan State University’s African Activist Archive Project, which have been largely ignored by historians, reveal that Robinson was one of the first Americans to advocate for boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning South Africa. Robinson partnered with the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), an anti-apartheid and anti-colonial organization, as early as 1959—when few Americans were even aware of apartheid in South Africa, much less the movement to end it.
Soon after South African police gunned down 72 unarmed Black men, women, and children in Sharpeville in March 1960, Robinson served as chairman for an “Emergency Action Conference on South Africa.” Robinson opened the conference with a speech in which he connected the movement to end racism in the US with campaigns against apartheid in South Africa. “I see the struggle against race supremacy and racial inequality as world-wide,” Robinson said to the crowd of about 200 people gathered at the Carnegie International Center in New York. “The fight against Jim Crow here is part of the same struggle in South Africa, and if I were in South Africa, I would hope to be numbered among those either threatened with or actually in prison for opposing the apartheid policy being followed by the government there.”
To combat apartheid in South Africa, Robinson and his fellow conference organizers put forward 24 actions the crowd of labor union members, clergy, and civil rights leaders could take. Chief among them were resolutions to boycott, divest, and sanction South Africa. Robinson, in particular, led a workshop entitled “Contacts with South Africa: Tourists, Athletes, Artists,” in which attendees agreed to “withhold their participation in tours and programs in South Africa until such time as South Africa abandons her racist policies.” Conference participants also resolved to launch a consumer boycott of all South African products. The labor unions that cosponsored the conference agreed to “study the possibility of an industrial boycott of South African goods through refusing to unload ships from South Africa.” Investors were urged to consider selling their stock of companies doing business in South Africa if they were unwilling or unsuccessful in pressuring the government to end apartheid. The conference attendees resolved to ask the US government to prohibit the importation of goods from South Africa and to stop purchasing gold and other strategic minerals from the country.
Robinson and his colleagues at the American Committee on Africa launched this boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign as a response to a request from the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid and anti-colonial leaders across Africa. “Economic boycott is one way in which the world at large can bring home to the South African authorities that they must either mend their ways or suffer for them,” read a joint statement from the ANC, the South African Indian Congress, and the South African Liberal Party in December 1959.
Independent African states and Caribbean nations were the first to respond to this call, but, thanks to Jackie Robinson and the ACOA, the movement soon gained steam in the United States. A parallel movement developed in Europe.
Two years after the Emergency Action Conference, Robinson helped spearhead a campaign to prevent South Africa from participating in the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Working with the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee and the ACOA, Robinson called for a boycott of the Games if the South African team were allowed to compete. After hearing directly from Robinson and other international sports figures, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) relented, banning South Africa from the Games.
When the IOC proposed in 1967 to readmit South Africa for the 1968 Games, Robinson organized 30 prominent artists, civil rights leaders, and athletes—including his former Dodgers teammate Roy Campanella—to sign an open letter, arguing that “as long as the discrimination and racial segregation of any sort is practiced by South Africa,” its inclusion in the Games should be barred.
Eventual gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, among other members of the US Olympic team, asked athletes to boycott the Olympic Games if South Africa were allowed to participate. Calling themselves the Olympic Project for Human Rights, they also pledged to stay home if additional demands were not met: the banning of white-controlled Rhodesia from the Games, the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title, the resignation of IOC President Avery Brundage, who was a renowned white supremacist, and the hiring of more African American assistant coaches.
Robinson joined forces with the Olympic Project for Human Rights and organized additional athletes behind the cause, including baseball players Bob Gibson and Jim Bouton, and tennis star Arthur Ashe. When South Africa countered the boycott threat by proposing to send a multiracial team to the Games, Robinson said at a press conference that this plan was a “fraud” and an example of “tokenism,” as the apartheid government nonetheless clung to its broader white supremacist policies.
At the last minute, the International Olympic Committee caved to the now global pressure and excluded South Africa and Rhodesia from the Mexico Games. That the additional demands remained unmet, however, left Smith, Carlos, and the other athletes who had pledged to boycott unsure whether to attend the Games. They did, but not without further expressing their demands, most famously, with Smith and Carlos raising their fists in the air on the medal podium in a salute to Black Power.
Jackie Robinson died four years later, leaving a legacy of athletic achievement and anti-racism that will endure beyond this 75th anniversary of his Major League debut. Robinson paved the way for Willie Mays, Willie Stargell, Eddie Murray, Barry Bonds, Andrew McCutchen, and Mookie Betts, among so many other African Americans, to play Major League Baseball. But through his groundbreaking contributions to the anti-apartheid movement, Robinson also paved the way for a global movement of athletes, grassroots organizations, churches, universities, labor unions, municipal governments, and, eventually, the US government to boycott, divest, and sanction South Africa until the regime’s eventual collapse in 1994.
In doing so, Robinson additionally opened the door for numerous individuals and organizations decades later to protest 21st-century apartheid by boycotting, divesting, and sanctioning Israel. When 170 Palestinian civil society organizations issued a call to the rest of the world to use BDS as a means to end the Israeli occupation, grant Palestinian refugees the right to return, and achieve equal rights for Palestinians living in Israel, they did not single out Robinson as a progenitor of the movement. But they did refer explicitly to the successful use of these tools in the anti-apartheid movement, which Robinson had played a key role in initiating. “We, representatives of Palestinian civil society,” the statement reads, “call upon international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era.”
The movement for Palestinian liberation is not the only campaign to have adopted the tactics of the South African anti-apartheid movement. Environmental justice activists have centered the use of divestment from fossil fuel companies as a key tool in their efforts to combat climate change. The Movement for Black Lives, too, has drawn on the anti-apartheid movement’s successful use of this method in order to advocate since 2016 for, on the one hand, divestment from fossil fuels, police, prisons, and militarization, including US financial support for Israel and, on the other hand, investment in Black communities.
Shining a light on the early years of the South African anti-apartheid movement thus allows us to see a direct line from Jackie Robinson to Nelson Mandela to Omar Barghouti to Greta Thundberg to Rachel Gilmer to Ben Ndugga-Kabuye to Mo’ne Davis to millions of people across the world struggling for peace, justice, inclusion, and equity. May we celebrate, learn from, and carry on this legacy until we, too, can one day declare, like Robinson did in 1968, “I am proud I associated myself so vigorously with the boycott.”