Jackie Robinson, BDS pioneer


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 the number 42 on their back in honor of Robinson. Since 2004, “Jackie Robinson Day” has been an occasion to celebrate the pioneering career of Jackie Robinson and, more recently, his contributions American style civil rights movement.

But we should also celebrate Robinson’s role as one of the first people to embark on a related, equally transformative endeavor. Records held at Michigan State University African Activist Archive Project, which have been largely ignored by historians, reveal that Robinson was one of the first Americans to advocate for the boycott, divestment and sanction of South Africa. Robinson associated with the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), an anti-apartheid and anti-colonial organization, from 1959– when few Americans knew about apartheid in South Africa, let alone the movement to end it.

Shortly after South African police shot and killed 72 unarmed black men, women and children in Sharpeville in March 1960, Robinson served as president of a “Urgent Action Conference on South Africa.” Robinson opened the conference with a speech in which he linked the movement to end racism in the United States to the campaigns against apartheid in South Africa. “I see the fight against racial supremacy and racial inequality as global,” Robinson told the crowd of about 200 gathered at the Carnegie International Center in New York. “The fight against Jim Crow here is part of the same fight in South Africa, and if I were in South Africa, I hope to be counted among those who are threatened or currently in prison for opposing the policy of apartheid followed by the government there.”

To combat apartheid in South Africa, Robinson and his fellow conference organizers proposed 24 gestures the crowd of trade unionists, clergy and civil rights leaders could cash in. 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 participants agreed to “suspend their participation in tours and programs in South Africa until that South Africa should abandon its racist policy”. Conference participants also decided to launch a consumer boycott of all South African products. The unions that co-sponsored the conference agreed “to explore the possibility of an industrial boycott of South African products by refusing to unload ships from South Africa”. Investors were asked to consider selling their shares of companies doing business in South Africa if they were unwilling or unable to pressure the government to end apartheid. Conference participants decided to ask the US government to ban the import of goods from South Africa and to stop buying 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 in response to a request from the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid and anti-colonial leaders across Africa . “The economic boycott is a means by which the world at large can impress on the South African authorities that they must either mend their ways or suffer for them,” reads a joint statement from the ANC, the South African and South Indian Congress. 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 ACOA, the movement quickly gained momentum in the United States. A parallel movement developed in Europe.

Two years after the Emergency Action Conference, Robinson helped lead a campaign to prevent South Africa from participating in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. In collaboration with the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee and ACOA, Robinson called for a boycott of the Games if the South African team was 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 a open letterarguing that “so long as racial discrimination and segregation of any kind is practiced by South Africa”, its inclusion in the Games should be prohibited.

Eventual gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlosamong other members of the U.S. Olympic team, asked the athletes to boycott the olympics whether South Africa was allowed to participate. Calling themselves the Olympic Project for Human Rights, they also pledged to stay home if additional demands were not met: banning white-controlled Rhodesia from the Games, restoration of the title heavyweight boxer of Muhammad Ali, the resignation of IOC President Avery Brundage, who was a renowned white supremacist, and the hiring of more African-American assistant trainers.

Robinson partnered with the Olympic Human Rights Project and organized other 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 offering to send a multiracial team to the Games, Robinson said at a press conference that this plan was a “fraud” and an example of “symbolism”, as the apartheid government nevertheless clung to its broader white supremacist policies.

At the last minute, the International Olympic Committee bowed to now global pressure and kicked South Africa and Rhodesia out of the Mexico Games. However, the failure to meet the additional demands left Smith, Carlos and the other athletes who had pledged to boycott unsure of attending the Games. They did, but not without expressing their demands further, the most famous being Smith and Carlos raising their fists in the air on the medal podium in tribute to Black Power.

Jackie Robinson died four years later, leaving a legacy of sporting achievement and anti-racism that will endure beyond the 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 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, unions, city governments, and eventually, government to boycott, divest and sanction South Africa until the regime’s eventual collapse in 1994.

In doing so, Robinson also opened the door for many people and organizations decades later to protest. 21st century apartheid by boycotting, depriving and sanctioning Israel. When 170 Palestinian civil society organizations published a call to the rest of the world to use BDS as a means to end the Israeli occupation, to grant Palestinian refugees the right to return and to achieve equal rights for Palestinians living in Israel, they did not single out Robinson as an ancestor of the movement. But they explicitly referred 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,” reads the statement, “call on international civil society organizations and people of conscience around the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa during the apartheid era.”

The Palestine Liberation Movement 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 liveswas also inspired by the successful use of this method by the anti-apartheid movement to campaign since 2016 for, on the one hand, divestment fossil fuels, policing, prisons and militarization, including US financial support for Israel and, on the other hand, investment in black communities.

Highlighting the early years of the South African anti-apartheid movement thus allows us to glimpse a direct line between Jackie Robinson and Nelson Mandela to Omar Barghouti for Greta Thundberg for Rachel Gilmer for Ben Ndugga-Kabuye for Mo’ne Davis to millions of people around the world who are fighting for peace, justice, inclusion and equity. May we celebrate, learn and carry on this legacy until we too can one day declare, as Robinson did in 1968, “I am proud to have associated myself so vigorously with the boycott”.

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