When Jackie Robinson Confronted a Trump-Like Candidate

At its core, Barry Goldwater’s campaign threatened blacks’ ability to fully engage in a two-party system.

Jackie Robinson speaking to reporters in San Francisco, July 10, 1964. (Bettmann / CORBIS)

“The danger of the Republican party being taken over by the lily-white-ist conservatives is more serious than many people realize,” Jackie Robinson cautioned in his syndicated column in August 1963. He was worried about the rise of Barry Goldwater, whose 1964 presidential bid laid the foundation for the modern conservative movement. Today, Goldwater’s shadow looms over Donald Trump’s campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination.

“During my life, I have had a few nightmares which happened to me while I was wide awake,” Robinson wrote in 1967. “One of them was the National Republican Convention in San Francisco, which produced the greatest disaster the Republican Party has ever known—Nominee Barry Goldwater.” Robinson, a loyal Republican who campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1960, was shocked and saddened by the racism and lack of civility he witnessed at the 1964 convention. As the historian Leah Wright Rigueur describes in The Loneliness of the Black Republican, black delegates were verbally assaulted and threatened with violence by Goldwater supporters. William Young, a Pennsylvania delegate, had his suit set on fire and was told to “keep in your own place” by his assailant. “They call you ‘nigger,’ push you and step on your feet,” New Jersey delegate George Fleming told the Associated Press. “I had to leave to keep my self-respect.”

The 1964 campaign was pivotal for Republicans because, despite Goldwater’s loss, the GOP came away with a dedicated network of people willing to work between election cycles to build the party. The GOP has won more presidential elections than it has lost since Goldwater. Donald Trump’s campaign plays on fears and resentments similar to those that fueled Goldwater’s presidential bid five decades ago. It is not yet clear, however, how this strategy will play out with an electorate that will be the most racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history (over 30 percent of eligible voters will be racial or ethnic minorities).

As the Draft Goldwater campaign expanded in early 1963, the editors at the Chicago Defender warned that Goldwater’s “brand of demagoguery has a special appeal to ultra conservative Republicans” and that he “cannot be laughed off as a serious possibility as is being done in some quarters unfriendly to him.” After the 1964 Republican National Convention, the Defender suggested, “Goldwater in the White House would be a nightmare from which the nation and the world would not soon recover.” Another editorial two days later struck a stronger tone: “The conviction is universal that Goldwater represents the most diabolical force that has ever captured the leadership of the Republican Party. After 108 years of exhortation to freedom, liberty, and justice, the GOP now becomes the label under which Fascism is oozed into the mainstream of American politics.”

Recalling the applause line in Goldwater’s acceptance speech—“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”—the Defender argued, “Goldwater’s extremist pronouncement is an invitation to violence and race riots.” On the eve of the election, Defender editors wrote that Goldwater “is in a frantic search for an issue that can stir the voter to an emotional pitch.  He tries to frighten the people into believing the country is not in safe hands.” (These and other editorials cited here can be found at Black Quotidian, a digital archive of black newspapers.)

In 1964, unlike 2016, it was not a foregone conclusion that the vast majority of black voters would support the Democratic Party. Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon received 39 percent and 32 percent of the black vote in the 1956 and 1960 presidential elections, compared to 6 percent for Goldwater in 1964. No Republican candidate since Goldwater has earned support from more than 15 percent of black voters.

“A new breed of Republicans has taken over the GOP,” Robinson wrote just after Goldwater claimed his party’s nomination. “It is a new breed which is seeking to sell to Americans a doctrine which is as old as mankind—the doctrine of racial division, the doctrine of racial prejudice, the doctrine of white supremacy.” He continued, “If I could couch in one single sentence the way I felt, watching this controlled steam-roller operation roll into high gear, I would put it this way, I would say that I now believe I know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

In a statement published in the New York Amsterdam News, Martin Luther King Jr. described Goldwater’s nomination as “both unfortunate and disastrous.” “While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to racists,” King argued. “His candidacy and philosophy will serve as an umbrella under which extremists of all stripes will stand.” King issued his statement a month after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation that Goldwater opposed. “On the urgent issue of civil rights,” King wrote, “Senator Goldwater represents a philosophy that is morally indefensible and politically and socially suicidal.”  For his part, Robinson described Goldwater as a “bigot” and “an advocate of white supremacy” who “seeks to gain the Presidency by capitalizing on white resentment to demands for Negro justice.”

In the 1964 election, Robinson, a stalwart Republican, backed New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, moderate Republican rivals to Goldwater, before eventually launching a Republicans and Independents for Lyndon Johnson organization after Goldwater secured the Republican nomination.​

“From Dr. King on down, we plan to get out the largest Negro vote in history,” Robinson said. “We want to believe in the two-party system but if Goldwater is the candidate we won’t be able to vote for him.” Robinson was relieved that Johnson defeated Goldwater by a landslide, but he was worried when he surveyed the wreckage of the Republican Party. “We must have a two-party system,” Robinson argued. “The Negro needs to be able to occupy a bargaining position. If Goldwater has been defeated, but Goldwaterism remains triumphant in GOP councils, America faces a difficult future.” As Robinson foresaw, the post-Goldwater Republican Party was only occasionally interested in competing for black voters.

Jackie Robinson, Chicago Defender editors, and Martin Luther King Jr. watched Goldwater’s rise with a mix of anger, fear, and dismay.  Their criticisms of Goldwater contained skepticism about the long-term implications of the racism and xenophobia espoused by the candidate. Today, Latino, Muslim, Asian American, and Arab American voters who hear echoes of Goldwater in the rhetoric of Donald Trump also fear that they might find themselves in a one-party system—to their detriment, and that of the party.