Listen to the Edge of Sports interview with Ken Burns here.
Ken Burns believes that Jackie Robinson’s mid-century life is a deeply under-appreciated lens for understanding our roiling political present. I interviewed Ken Burns about his triumphant two-part PBS documentary—co-created with Sarah Burns and David McMahon—about the player who smashed baseball’s color line but also confronted so much more. “Think about what [Robinson] was dealing with,” Burns said to me, “the Confederate flag, driving while black, stop and frisk, #BlackLivesMatter, burning black churches…. Jackie is not only inspirational but an agent for how we try to digest the current situation about race.”
With four hours of running time, Burns is able to create a three-dimensional portrait of Robinson, beyond caricature or hagiography. He is also, in the second part, which airs Tuesday night, able to use Robinson as a lens to understand why the Republicans and Democratic parties are so sclerotic on issues of race. As Burns said, “Robinson was there in 1960 and 1964 when the two parties switched sides on the Southern white vote, and that’s a huge moment in American history. He witnessed it firsthand.”
Robinson, sure enough, was present at the 1960 Democratic Convention as well as 1964 Republican Convention, and what he saw left him distraught. Jackie was a lifelong Republican because the Democratic Party’s Dixiecrat wing ran his family out of Georgia. In 1960, angered that Richard Nixon ignored his requests to help a jailed Martin Luther King, he considered endorsing John Kennedy and attended the Democratic National Convention. He also had friends telling him that this senator from Massachusetts was serious about civil rights. Yet Kennedy was still trying to hold that Dixiecrat coalition together and sat segregationist Governor of Arkansas Orval Faubus on stage. Robinson walked out in disgust.
In 1964, Robinson endorsed New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and attended the Republican National Convention as a “Rockefeller Republican” delegate, only to witness the ascension of Barry Goldwater as his party made its play for Southern whites enraged at Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Civil Rights Act. He saw, in Burns’s words to me, the moment when “the Republican Party made a pact with the devil for which they are still paying, from Ronald Reagan beginning his campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, saying ‘I’m for states’ rights,’ through Willie Horton, through, now, Donald Trump taking a couple days to—wink, wink—disavow David Duke and white supremacy in the Ku Klux Klan.”