Who Killed Jack Robinson
by Frank Thomas Smith
When Charlie and I got back to the office we began the usual written report on the events of the day having to do with the investigation, me dictating to Charlie, but both of us throwing in ideas. That’s the way it was supposed to work, and usually did, but this time everything was different. I should have noticed Charlie’s mood before opening my big mouth, which could have avoided the argument that followed and Charlie’s resignation.
She came into my office with her dictation pad and sat down without saying a word.
“What idiots!” I said.
“Who?” Charlie said, her frown deepening.
“Who? Uncle Sol, for one. He’s a nice guy and all, but anyone who lets himself get sucked into this Black Muslim crap should have his head examined. And Gladys Rounder – what about her? Elijah’s wife, for God’s sake.”
“I think you could criticize the Black Muslims without calling everyone who sympathizes with them idiots,” Charlie said.
“Come on, Charlie,” I pontificated, “They want to take over a state because they think they’re blessed with racial superiority. I mean after all…” That’s as far as I got.
“Oh, you think someone’s an idiot because they think they’re racially superior. Then the whole fucking white race is one big idiot. Did you ever think of that?”
I was stunned, but recovered quickly, and said, stupidly, “At least the white race doesn’t have White Muslims trying to take over Africa.”
“Oh no? Ever hear of South Africa and apartheid? Ever hear of the Klu Klux Klan right here in the good old USA? Or slavery, here again, practiced until not so long ago?” She stood up and glared at me. I saw hate in her eyes. How could this have happened? I stood up and walked around my desk toward her.
“Charlie,” I said, trying to be conciliatory, which was a mistake, “I didn’t mean anything by what I said..” - then funny, second mistake - “… whatever it was.”
She held up her hand palm outward as a signal for me not to come any closer. “No, I don’t think you did,” she said, quietly now. “That’s just the problem, isn’t it? You say – I mean all of you – you say stupid, insulting things because you don’t think. You never want to think about what you’ve done to us.”
She’d never spoken to me like that before. We’d even joked about the fact that her family wanted nothing to do with me – well, didn’t want Charlie to be involved with me – because I was white, when it should have been the other way around. When I thought about it later, though, I realized that I had joked and Charlie had swallowed it.
“I didn’t do anything to you,” I said, getting angry again. I mean what the hell was she accusing me of? “Do you think all white people are the same, prejudiced and all that?”
“All white people are prejudiced, Darrell, they can’t help it. Remember? It’s only a question of degree.”
“I asked you to marry me, for Christ’s sake.”
“Ah, I see, Now doesn’t that make you saintly? You condescended to propose to a nigger. Fuck you, Darrell.”
She threw the notepad and pencil down on my desk and stormed out, slamming the door. A second later the door opened again. Charlie put her head in and said, “By the way, I quit.” There were tears in her eyes, but she closed the door quietly this time and left, just left. I thought of running after her but knew it could only make things worse. We both needed time to calm down and think things over.
Jimmy McKey called the next day from Charlotte. He’d done a really good job down there. First of all, he interviewed some of Jerry Rollins’ family and friends. It turned out that Jerry was a teetotaler and churchgoer, loved by all. According to McKey, there wasn’t a chance in hell that he’d willingly participated in a drunken motel orgy. Well, I thought, teetotaling churchgoers have been known to lead double lives and indulge in drunken orgies, but I made a mental note of Jimmy’s opinion. More importantly, the Black Muslims had tried to recruit Rollins, who was tempted, but decided against them because they weren’t Christians. Also, upon more intense interrogation of both motel clerks, McKey found out that the “Arab” was more likely a light-skinned Negro from Chicago, the same one, in fact, who had been recruiting for the Black Muslims in Charlotte. His name was Elias – that’s what he called himself anyway.
Things were really starting to add up now. Jimmy received a telephone message to call Bobby Kennedy at a private number in Washington. I gave him the number and told him to call me back right away to advise me what Kennedy wanted. Jimmy called back five minutes later to say that Kennedy had asked him to go to Washington because he wanted to talk to him personally. I gave him the green light of course, especially since his train passed through Washington on the way back to New York anyway. It amazing how when the first parts of a puzzle are in place the rest seem to fall in of their own accord.
In order not to be jumping back and forth, and to avoid reproducing Jimmy’s interminable written report, I’ll just relate here the gist of what Bobby told him. Kennedy not only put pressure on the Boston police chief, he also went to his mafia contacts. He didn’t exactly say that to Jimmy, but he was quite proud of what he had found out and couldn’t help implying it. What it boils down to is that the mafia wasn’t behind the Boston killing of the J.R. there. In fact, they were somewhat offended by the suspicion that they would bother to take out a colored ballplayer because of a minor gambling debt. The hit man was indeed the black guy who was fingered in Boston, but, according to the mafia’s investigation, the contract was made by a guy – maybe Negro, maybe not – from Chicago named Elias, a.k.a. “the Arab”. The Chicago police couldn’t very use hearsay evidence obtained from Bobby Kennedy from the mafia against the hit man, but they nabbed him for as many other things as they could think of and, with the help of the D.A. and a Kennedy-friendly judge, were able to put him away for ten years. All the Kennedy resources weren’t enough to ever locate “the Arab” though, and we never even found out if he really was an Arab.
I was still trying to figure out what to do about Gladys Rounder when Charlie phoned a few days later. She said she wanted to talk. I said fine, my place or hers. She said it was business and it would have to be at the office. I hadn’t even considered looking for another secretary because I was still hoping that Charlie would see the light and come back to me – as my secretary and as my love. Then she said she wanted Jimmy McKey to be present, and I knew it was really business.
She arrived a nine a.m. the next morning and Jimmy and I were waiting for her. She sat down across from me, alongside Jimmy, crossed her gorgeous legs and began: “I went to see Gladys Rounder.” I almost shouted “Alone? Without me? ” but this time I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut and let her continue. “Because of what Uncle Sol told us.” I had already filled Jimmy in on that, so we both nodded.
“I asked Gladys if she was a Black Muslim. She looked terrified when I said that, and I knew something was wrong because I’ve never seen her even ruffled at anything. She didn’t answer, so I asked again. She said she was, or had been, but didn’t know if she still was or not. Oh yes, she asked me if you had sent me, Darrell, and I assured her that I was there on my own, but that she’d be hearing from you soon and I wanted to get to her before you did. That seemed to mean something to her, because she told me everything.”
Up until then she’d been looking at her hands or at Jimmy, seldom at me. Now, though, she looked directly into my eyes. I didn’t know which I wanted more, to know “everything”, or to take her in my arms and tell her I loved her. I couldn’t very well do the latter with Jimmy present, and I didn’t know if she’d let me, so I settled for everything. “And what was everything, Charlie?”
“That yes, she was a Black Muslim, and close to Elijah. In fact, she was in the inner circle of leaders. Elijah didn’t like the idea of Jackie Robinson going to the Major Leagues,” Charlie continued. “He doesn’t even like him being called Jackie instead of Jack, because he says it belittles him. He wants all the Negro players to sort of migrate to the Black Muslim state and play there. He’s completely against integration, you see.”
“But the Black Muslim state doesn’t even exist,” Jimmy said.
“Of course not,” Charlie said with a wry smile. “That’s what makes it all so crazy … I mean ridiculous.” She glanced quickly at me, then away. “Gladys was present during a meeting with a man they call Elias when this subject was discussed…”
“Wait a minute, Charlie,” I said. “Is Elias also called the Arab?”
“Why yes, Gladys mentioned that. How did you know?”
“I’ll tell you later. Go on first. No wait? Is he really an Arab?”
“Gladys doesn’t know. He uses black idiom, but she thinks he has a slight accent. Light skinned, could be an Arab.” She frowned. “Now you tell me how you knew about him.”
“Elias the Arab, or whatever he is, was involved it the J.R. killings in Boston and Charlotte,” I told her. “Now please go on, we’ll put it all together later.”
“At that meeting Elias said they should pressure the ballplayers so they wouldn’t fall into the white trap and play in the Majors. Elijah agreed, but thought that Jackie Robinson had too high a profile to threaten. In fact, he had already spoken personally with Robinson. But Jackie is an integrationist, doesn’t want anything to do with the Muslims and basically told Elijah to get lost.”
“Good for him,” Jimmy McKey said.
“If they threatened him now, after Prophet Elijah had talked to him, he might go to the police and the press and name the Muslims and the whole idea could backfire. So Elias suggested they pick lesser known players who might be due to go to the majors after Jackie, and Robinson would get the message that way – indirectly.”
“The other J.Rs!” Jimmy said.
“Did Elijah agree to that?” I asked her.
“Gladys thought not, said that he shook his head. But then when she heard about the J.R. deaths in Boston and Charlotte, she wasn’t sure.”
“What about the newspaper clippings she sent to Rickey?” I asked.
“She wanted to warn Mr. Rickey and Robinson,” Charlie said.
“But that’s just what they wanted,” Jimmy said, “in order to intimidate Jackie.”
Charlie thought a moment, then said, “Gladys thinks that Elias did it on his own because when she told Elijah about the J.R. deaths in Boston and Charlotte he seemed surprised, cursed Elias, and said he’d take care of it. But Gladys was still worried and finally understood how dangerous the whole Black Muslim thing could be.” She looked at me again. “She doesn’t want anything to happen to Jackie Robinson, Darrell.”
“Do you believe that?” I asked her, meaning that I didn’t believe it.
“Yes, I think I do.”
“Why?” Jimmy asked her.
“Because she called him Jackie instead of Jack… and she said she’s through with the Black Muslims, if they’ll let her be through with them. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but…” Her voice cracked and the tears came. But she blew her nose and they soon stopped. “That’s all,” she said. “Except that I’m telling this to you because I know you need to know it, but I’m not telling it to the police or anyone else like that.”
“Jackie Robinson could still be in danger, Charlie,” I said.
“That’s why I told you.”
I tried to convince her to stay or to have lunch with me… or anything. But she said she meant it when she said she was quitting, that she was sorry about what she said to me and wanted us to be friends – which, translated into real-life moviespeak, meant it was over between us.
When I told Branch Rickey the whole story he wanted to go right to the police or the FBI, which I had anticipated. I reminded him, however, that we had no evidence or even a threat to Robinson. The police wouldn’t take it seriously, but would surely leak it to the press, who would blow it up to a full-scale racial issue, and Branch Rickey could wind up being sued by the Black Muslims for slander. And, I asked him, which police – Charlotte or Boston? This advice may seem perverse to those of you who aren’t old enough to remember how things were those days; those who do remember will understand. I knew that Branch already had a bodyguard for Jackie. I told him he needed three, for eight hours round-the-clock shifts, and a supervisor, preferably a black one, whom Jackie would trust.
“You want a colored supervisor for three white bodyguards, Darrell?”
“If that doesn’t work, we could use colored bodyguards, too.”
“I’ve already got one and he’s white. He’ll probably quit if we put in two more colored ones, and a boss to boot – Jesus.”
“So let him quit,” I said smiling. “You started this, Branch.”
“So I did, so I did.”
The white bodyguard didn’t quit. In the short time he’d been on the job he came to respect Jackie Robinson. “Hell,” he told Jimmy McKey some time after the latter took over as chief J.R. security agent, “this guy’s twice as smart as me, plays baseball ten times better and takes a hundred times more shit. And he’s a gentleman. I love the guy.” Jimmy was perfect for the job. He followed the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson around the country, arranged for private sleeping accommodations for both of them – Jackie couldn’t stay at the same hotels as the rest of the team and the Negro hotels were mostly too sleazy – and became one of Jackie’s best friends. The Dodgers paid his salary, which was fine with me. What wasn’t fine was that he didn’t come back to work for me after the season was over. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson gave him a “scholarship” out of their own pockets so he could concentrate on his law degree. He eventually became a leading advocate for Negro rights and, later, was appointed federal prosecutor by Jack Kennedy specializing in civil rights abuses.
And Charlie? She also changed her profession. She gave up acting, saying she was tired of playing maids and Ethiopian slave-girls, got a masters degree in industrial relations and became Personnel Director of Chock full o’ Nuts when Jackie was vice-president of the company. Oh, and she married a doctor. He was the right color of course, and her family was very happy to welcome him into the fold – and get rid of me. Was I bitter? You bet.
Jackie Robinson played his first major league game on opening day in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn on April 15, 1947. The place was packed of course, with about seventy per cent black folks. Jackie didn’t get a hit that day – in fact he went 0 for 20 at the beginning, before he settled down and became the scourge of the opposition. But his presence electrified the whole town. He took a lot of racist shit that year, but not in Ebbets Field, where he was king. Elias the Arab was not heard from again. Maybe Prophet Elijah took care of him, maybe he took a slow boat to Arabia.
Years later, when Jackie Robinson was V.P. of Chock full o’ nuts, Martin Luther King organized that now famous march on Washington. Charlie invited me to march with them. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, but was still in love with her, guess I always will be. I went to the march, one of the few white faces there, two rows behind MLK and Jackie. I learned later that Jackie invited two of his friends from the Dodgers, Clem Labine and Carl Erskine. Famous white athletes would have drawn even more attention and sympathy. But they decided it might hurt their business relations, so they didn’t go. Clem said later that they let Jackie down and regretted it.
I’ve often thought that if Charlie and I had been born a quarter of a century later, things would have been very different for us. Maybe next time.
© Frank Thomas Smith
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