Listen to Jackie Robinson Speaking at an Ohio Civil Rights Rally in 1964

This civil rights rally was held in Columbus, OH, a few months after the March on Washington and just as the congressional fight for the Civil Rights Act approached the final dramatic months. According to Associated Press accounts the next day, “the audience was estimated as about two-thirds Negro.” About 5,000 spectators crammed into the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, and an additional 1,000 watched the proceedings from a closed-circuit television in a nearby room.

The tape on offer in our March 21, 2024, Printed & Manuscript African Americana auction includes 82 minutes of audio from the rally, apparently recorded from a WOSU radio broadcast, with generally clear sound quality. Five speakers are heard, starting with Herbert E. Evans of People’s Broadcasting Corporation; Ray Ross, president of the United Auto Workers of Ohio; the Rev. Arthur Alvin Zebbs of the Columbus Chapter of CORE; and NAACP lawyer John Bolt Culbertson of South Carolina.

Rev. Arthur Alvin Zebbs of the Columbus Chapter of CORE

Rev. Zebbs was the only Black speaker among these first four. A prominent local leader, he told the crowd: “This nation is now seeing an unprecedented struggle for freedom. People are praying for freedom. People are being bitten by dogs for freedom. People are facing fire hoses and electric prods for freedom.” He criticized certain white churchmen who “will flee in panic from their neighborhoods if a Negro looks at one of their houses.” He set out the parameters of legitimate integration: “Do not think that by hiring a few Negroes here and there, that we will be satisfied. . . . The watermelon tactics of tokenism will no longer satisfy. We are going to see Negroes integrated into every department of industry and business, across the board from top to bottom, and until then we will never cease our protests.” He concluded with a demand that “our city council pass a fair housing ordinance.”

Jackie Robinson

The final speaker heard on this tape was retired baseball great and integration pioneer Jackie Robinson, then serving as vice president of the coffee firm Chock Full o’ Nuts—the first Black man serving as the vice president of any white-owned corporation in America. Robinson had long been interested in politics and civil rights, although he was conservative by the standards of the era’s civil rights leaders. He had supported Richard Nixon for president in 1960, and though warmly supportive of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he was later an appointee for New York’s moderate Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller.

Robinson begins his talk with sincere admiration for the much less famous speakers who preceded him: “I don’t think it’s fair for an old broken-down ballplayer to be brought on . . . after listening to the previous speakers,” calling it “one of the most inspiring programs that I have ever attended. . . . Rev. Zebbs, for instance, is perhaps the symbol of the Negro protests.”

Lot 137: Press photo of Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Martin Luther King and Whitney Young meeting with President Johnson, 1964. Estimate $800 to $1,200.

The day before this rally, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Martin Luther King and Whitney Young had accepted an invitation from President Johnson to discuss the Civil Rights Act at the White House (see the photograph of the meeting above, lot 137), and King had expressed optimism afterward. Robinson noted: “I am quite proud and pleased as I assure you all are at the wonderful sounds that are coming out of the White House. . . . All of our civil rights leaders have been before our president to hear what he’s going to do about civil rights. . . . I’m somewhat of a skeptic. I’m going to wait and see what [President Johnson] does, rather than what he says. . . . His southern friends, [Georgia Senator Richard] Russell and [North Carolina Senator Strom] Thurmond . . . are awfully quiet today about what civil rights is going to happen in a very short time.” The bill would pass the House on 10 February, the Senate in June, and receive Johnson’s signature on 2 July.

On the March on Washington:

Robinson spoke at length about his recent attendance at the March on Washington: “This was one of the greatest events in the history of the United States. . . . My young son David and I walked in that march. . . . The lady next to me was Daisy Bates . . . who did so much in Little Rock, Arkansas in helping the youngsters go to school. And the lady next to her was Rosa Parks. Had it perhaps not been for Rosa Parks, I bet we would not have a Dr. Martin Luther King today. . . . As the songs got louder, I looked over and saw these thousands of Negroes singing and holding their heads high and marching peacefully, and I said to myself, I have never been prouder of being a Negro than I am today. . . . There were thousands upon thousands of white Americans who believe in freedom, and they too were singing and enjoying the march as much as the rest of us, and I said I have never felt prouder of being an American. . . . To have it climax with Dr. Martin Luther King, and he talked about his dream.” Robinson then quotes from King’s famous speech.

Robinson made a case for voter participation, though as an independent deeply suspicious of southern Dixiecrats, he pointedly did not make any endorsements: “If you want freedom and if you want dignity and understanding, you get to those polls and register, and you get down there and vote for the man that’s going to do the best job. Our fight for freedom can only be won by the masses of the people.”

On Baseball, Celebrity & Equality:

Of course, Robinson brought baseball into the discussion: “A Miami newspaper man wrote an article stating that he couldn’t understand what Jackie Robinson was protesting. Of all the Negroes that he knows, I have less right to be on the firing line.” The crowd laughed heartily at this remark. “He went on to say it was the white man Branch Rickey who brought me into baseball and gave me the opportunity to play. . . . He says Jackie Robinson’s got it made, and therefore has no right to protest.” He recounts discrimination against other Black celebrities like Nat King Cole and Lena Horne, and then discusses “a guy in my own profession, Willie Mays. They say Willie Mays makes more money than anyone in baseball today. . . . Willie Mays wanted to buy a home [in San Francisco]. You remember what happened to Willie Mays. He ended up with all kinds of abuse.”

Robinson then recounts the segregated Pasadena swimming pools and YMCA and restaurants of his youth, concluding that “I intend to continue in this fight for freedom because there isn’t a Negro in this country that has it made until the most underprivileged Negro in the deepest south has it made. . . . In this democracy of ours, not one of us has it made, until all of us have it made. . . . We are somewhat like a cat that has been chased up in a corner by a dog, and the cat has nowhere else to run.” Here the recording cuts off 23 minutes into Robinson’s talk, which was apparently nearing its end. It is followed by the beginning of “John F. Kennedy: A Biography,” a television show narrated by Cliff Robertson and sponsored by Union Bank & Trust, which aired nationally circa 1 December 1965.

While many thousands of radio listeners must have heard this rally during its original broadcast, we have found no hint that any other recording of it survives today.

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