Teaching With Documents, Volume 2


Jackie Robinson, President Eisenhower, and the Little Rock Crisis

Nineteen ninety seven marked the 50th anniversary of the breaking of organized baseball’s color line and the 40th anniversary of the Little Rock, AR, school desegregation crisis. Jackie Robinson, a man of inner strength, moral probity, and determination, played a role in both these civil rights events.

What most people know or remember about Jackie Robinson today is that he was a superb baseball player, the first African American to play major league baseball. His courage, capability, and strength of will captivated millions of fans and, in the course of his 10-year career, brought him many honors, including major league Rookie of the Year, the National League’s Most Valuable Player, its 1949 batting champion, two-time stolen base leader, and perennial All-Star. In 1962 he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility.

Behind his on-the-field feats, there was another, largely forgotten civic side of Jack Roosevelt Robinson. Both the circumstances of his entry into the game and his conviction that "life is not a spectator sport" ensured that Robinson would not be content to rest on previous laurels. When he retired from baseball, Robinson decided to build upon his experience as a trailblazer in the high-profile sphere of American professional sports and become an advocate of change in the larger political world.

Robinson believed that the United States was too good a nation to shirk the goals of fair and equal treatment for all peoples; indeed, he regarded his successes on the baseball diamond as shining proof of the potential benefits to all when the United States lived up to its ideals. He was a grateful and public-spirited citizen who determined to use his gifts and fame to help his country combat ethnic intolerance and racial bigotry in everyday life.

From the moment he left the Dodgers after the 1956 season until his premature death in 1972 at the age of 53, Robinson never stopped crusading on behalf of expanded civil rights for all peoples. Unwilling to fade quietly into obscurity after his retirement from baseball, Robinson turned to new and expanded pursuits. He rose quickly to business prominence, first as a highly visible Chock Full O’Nuts corporate executive. Later, he helped organize the Freedom National Bank of New York, an institution created to fund minority commercial enterprises, and established a construction company to build low-cost public housing.

As an informed, patriotic, and responsible private citizen, Robinson raised money for charitable organizations, lent his name and efforts to national religious institutions in behalf of civic causes, chaired committees devoted to helping secure funding for young African college students, testified at congressional and administrative hearings on inner-city issues, and from 1959 to 1960, wrote almost 200 columns for a New York newspaper. Among the many awards he received for his public service work were those conferred by the George Washington Carver Memorial Institute, the Benny Leonard Foundation, the National Inter-Faith Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Howard University.

In his approach to politics, Robinson followed an independent path, and his style was adversarial—much like the way he had played baseball. Consequently, many individuals disagreed with his point of view, but few would deny the depth of his conviction or his courage to act upon what he considered to be right. His civic consciousness and social activism were born from a belief that since democracy is not static, one must fight constantly to preserve it. The years in which he worked to improve the situation for blacks in the United States constitute the high-water period for the formal civil rights movement in this country-the 1950s and 1960s. During that galvanic period the move to secure full civil rights for black Americans gained momentum through actions taking place in all three branches of the Federal Government and through the prodding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Robinson proved to be no mere "armchair philosopher" in advancing the causes he believed in. He ventured into the turbulent South many times during the 1950s and 1960s, marching at Selma, speaking in Birmingham, and joining the historic 1963 March on Washington. He also participated in other organized protest efforts and demonstrations in New York City and the District of Columbia. Frequently, he carried the battle for black political and economic parity to the Chief Executives. His spirited and voluminous correspondence with four Presidential administrations from 1956 to 1972 reflected a sometimes hot-and-cold relationship with each of the Presidents-Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

Jackie Robinson’s letter to Eisenhower in September 1957, which is reproduced in this article, was written in the midst of a simmering crisis in Little Rock, AR. The crisis centered on the proposed desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School. Arkansas was one State that initially chose to desegregate its schools voluntarily following the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), which invalidated "separate but equal" as the law of the land. In Arkansas, even before 1957, blacks were admitted to state-supported universities and to public and parochial schools in some communities. In addition, they were hired in several hospitals in the larger cities and by several white business firms. County medical societies, scouting groups, labor unions, and the American Association of University Women were among the organizations in Arkansas that began opening their membership to black Americans.

In Little Rock, the state capital, integrated meetings, conferences, libraries, and cultural events were more and more the norm rather than the exception. Further, the city school board approved an extremely moderate six-year plan to desegregate its public schools starting at the high school level in September 1957. As agreed, Central High School, a public school of more than 2,000 white students, was slated to enroll nine black students after Labor Day. On the evening before the school opened, however, Governor Orval Faubus announced on television that he could not vouch for the safety of the nine black students if violence were to break out in protest of their enrolling. As the State’s highest-ranking official charged with keeping peace, he told his amazed audience that he planned to call out the Arkansas National Guard to turn the students away so as to avert bloodshed.

Faubus, previously considered racially and politically liberal, was up for reelection soon. He no doubt knew that a show of resistance to the school board desegregation plan would be politically helpful. Many residents of Little Rock and elsewhere not only rejected the legitimacy of federally-mandated school desegregation but were galled by the swiftness with which Arkansas authorities had already proven willing to implement it. The Governor may have considered that the Federal Government would eventually step in, but in the meantime his maneuver would demonstrate to potential voters that he was not accepting the Government’s wishes without putting up a fight.

The NAACP, local school board, and Federal courts thereafter worked to defuse the situation and force compliance, but in the short run Faubus was successful in carrying out his plan.True to his word, he sent state guardsmen to the high school and posted them to block entry of the black students. In addition, a large and menacing crowd of white onlookers gathered on-site to ensure that segregation there was staunchly upheld. The circumstances were sobering for the Nation. For the first time, opposition to admission of black students was not merely legal; it was physical.

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What followed was a prolonged and ultimately fruitless period of several weeks of tense negotiation in which the President and his advisers tried to reason with Faubus. Even after the Governor reluctantly agreed to remove the National Guard, the mob remained to prevent the entry of the black students and, in fact, rioted. Eisenhower never had intended to push integration, but his administration was confronted with a challenge to the Federal Government’s authority and the power of the Chief Executive to enforce the law of the land as interpreted by the Supreme Court. Finally, after several well-publicized appeals for the mob to disperse, Eisenhower ordered federal troops into the city and federalized the Arkansas National Guard.

The President had been reluctant to take such an extreme measure, but as a former military officer, he knew that such bold resistance to Federal authority could not be tolerated if the Federal Union was to endure. Ironically, this extreme measure had been undertaken by a racially conservative President who, in most matters, saw a limited role for the Federal Government and supported states’ rights. Only when forced by what he termed "extraordinary and compelling circumstances" did he order federal troops to defend the rights of black citizens in the Souths—the first time they had done so since the days of Reconstruction.

Robinson’s letter of September 13 reflected the ex-ballplayer’s growing concern that the President had never publicly denounced acts of violence committed by obstructionists to integration. Robinson also chafed at any insinuation on the part of racial conservatives that civil rights advocates were somehow extreme in wanting the Court’s decrees upheld. Robinson believed instead that massive efforts to resist integration were unpatriotic because they were both unlawful and undemocratic in character. Further, Robinson and a number of other prominent African Americans of the time were unhappy with what they regarded as the nearly eviscerated Civil Rights Act of 1957, which had just been signed into law by the President. Expecting strong advocacy from the White House, they were not pleased with the President’s decision.

The letter and a later note of congratulations from Robinson to Eisenhower for sending in the troops are contained in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, Dwight D. Eisenhower Library, General Files, Box 920.


1. Provide each student with a photocopy of the document, and make a transparency containing the following questions: What type of document is this? What are the dates of the document? Who wrote the document? What is the purpose of the document? What information in the document helps you understand why it was written? Does the fact that the letter was written on company letterhead paper imply that the company endorsed or supported the author’s views? Ask one student to read the letter aloud as the other students read silently. Lead the class in oral responses to the questions.

2. Ask students to research the circumstances surrounding the writing of this letter by using information in the note to the teacher, the time line, and reference texts in the classroom or school library. Continue to analyze the document aloud in class with the following questions:

a. Who is the "we" to whom the author refers? According to the author, what constitutional rights are being violated?

b. What is the President’s statement advising patience? To whom is he referring? What are the circumstances for the President’s remarks?

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c. What specifically do you think Jackie Robinson wants Eisenhower to do in this situation and in regard to the campaign for expanded civil rights? How do you suppose the public would have reacted to these proposed actions?

d. What is the meaning of Robinson’s references to world opinion and communism? What kinds of historical events in the United States and elsewhere would have led him to believe that these were important considerations?

e. Did Robinson write this letter as a "Negro," as a "Negro American," or just an "American?" Is the author correct in implying that what concerns him is a national problem, or could it be only a regional one? Given that Robinson is writing from New York City, do you think his perspective is different from that of southern blacks at the time?

f. Robinson cites violence as a problem. To what examples of violence might he be alluding? What are some present-day parallels?

g. Do you consider Robinson’s strong criticism of the National Government fair? Is the tone pleading or demanding? Discuss.

h. What effect did live television coverage of the Little Rock and subsequent civil rights incidents have on the degree and kind of public reaction that viewers might have had? What technological developments might affect public opinion now should similar occurrences take place?

3. An alternative to #2 might be to use the document and the questions as an evaluation tool for a unit on civil rights.

4. Expand the time line by assigning each student a particular year between 1958 and the present. Instruct students to use library resources to identify events related to civil rights that occurred in their assigned year. Copy the time line onto butcher paper, and attach it to a blank wall in the classroom. Ask the class to choose the most significant items they located, and add them to the time line.

5. Explore with the students the effects of letter writing as a political activity. Ask them to draft likely responses from the President to Robinson. Select several of the best examples, and post them on the bulletin board.

6. Direct the students to conduct a news conference on the Little Rock crisis with students taking the roles of representatives of several different points of view. Examples might include a news reporter representing a big northern city newspaper, a reporter representing a southern newspaper, a representative of the NAACP, a Central High School official, and a representative of Faubus’ administration. Select one student to act as moderator. The rest of the class should draft questions for the media panel. Videotape the news conference, and play it back for the class to critique.

7. Use the jigsaw or other cooperative group method to give students 15 minutes to analyze one of the following statements and then reconfigure them to report the results in a new group. Then ask them to choose one statement and write a paragraph explaining how it applies to the Little Rock episode.

"All politics are based on the indifference of the majority."
—James Reston

"If there is no struggle there is no progress…. Power concedes nothing without a demand."
—Frederick Douglass

"The only title in our democracy superior to that of president is the title of citizen."
—Jimmy Carter

8. Jackie Robinson and NAACP leader Roy Wilkins, although close on many issues, held different opinions about the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Ask two volunteers to evaluate one of the following quotations and justify the view for the class:

"Am opposed to civil rights bill in its present form; have been in touch
with a number of my friends. We disagree that half loaf better than none."
—Jackie Robinson (from a telegram)

"If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon and a man comes along
and offers you a spade, there is something wrong with your head if
you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer."
—Roy Wilkins


1947: Robinson signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in 20th-century major league baseball.

Robinson named major league Rookie of the Year.

1948:Sipeul v Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. The Supreme Court ruled that denying the applicant admission to the university violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Executive Order 9981 issued, stating "There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Services without regard to race."

1949: Robinson named National League batting and stolen bases champion.

Robinson named National League Most Valuable Player.

1950:Sweatt v Painter. The Supreme Court held that setting up a separate black law school at the University of Texas did not provide "a truly equal education in law." It concluded that Sweatt’s exclusion from the white law school at the university violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

1954:Brown v Board of Education. The Supreme Court decided that school segregation violated the Constitution. The concept of separate but equal established in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) was overturned.

1956:Gayle v Browder. The Supreme Court referred to the Brown v Board of Education case to strike down segregated bus facilities in Montgomery, AL.

Robinson retired from the Dodgers.

1957: Robinson awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal.

Robinson became an executive for the Chock Full O’ Nuts Coffee Company.

September 4: Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus blocked the integration of Central High School in Little Rock with National Guard troops.

September 9: Civil Rights Act passed, prohibiting interference in the exercise of voting rights, simplifying the system for Federal Government involvement in voting rights violations, and establishing a national Commission on Civil Rights.

September 13: Robinson wrote to President Eisenhower.

September 24: President Eisenhower sent in federal troops and removed the National Guard from Faubus’s control.

1958:Cooper v Aaron (Little Rock, AR). The Supreme Court upheld the U.S. Court of Appeals reversal of a stay against integration, saying that "the constitutional rights of children regardless of race can neither be nullified openly and directly by state legislators or state executive officials nor nullified by them by evasive schemes for segregation."


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Chicago: "Jackie Robinson, President Eisenhower, and the Little Rock Crisis," Teaching With Documents, Volume 2 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. Wynell B. Schamel (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998), 229–235. Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4Q1W35NJXAU3WGJ.

MLA: . "Jackie Robinson, President Eisenhower, and the Little Rock Crisis." Teaching With Documents, Volume 2, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by Wynell B. Schamel, Vol. 2, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998, pp. 229–235. Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4Q1W35NJXAU3WGJ.

Harvard: , 'Jackie Robinson, President Eisenhower, and the Little Rock Crisis' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 2. cited in 1998, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, D.C., pp.229–235. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4Q1W35NJXAU3WGJ.