In the spring of 1956, Jackie Robinson was coming off a triumphant World Series, the only one the Brooklyn Dodgers would win before decamping to Los Angeles. Robinson was 37 years old, and just one season away from retirement. When he sat down with a pair of journalists from the Pittsburgh Courier, the pioneering baseball star was in a reflective mood. “This isn’t the story of my life,” Robinson’s as-told-to series in the storied Black newspaper began. “It is, however, a story of how I’ve found the South after 10 years in the major leagues.”
In that piece and a sequel the following week, Robinson said that he’d been “exposed to the worst type of discrimination” and that to “a large extent the Southerners, particularly those in politics, are to blame.” Robinson decried the Jim Crow policies of the minor league Southern Association, which featured just one Black American player (in 1954, and for just two games) before shutting down in 1961. He also spoke up about the injustice of segregated housing. “Sometimes there are hotels (Negro-owned) that accommodate us. When hotels aren’t available we stay with various families,” he said. Robinson then made a simple plea: “Because we are traveling in the South there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to live with our teammates. We are all part of a team and should be treated that way.”
For many Americans, Robinson’s words and his presence on the field were a source of strength. As a teenager, Hank Aaron saw Robinson give a speech and play an exhibition game in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. “I was allowed to dream after that,” Aaron once wrote.
But others, especially white Southerners, saw Robinson as a threat. One of them was Bill Keefe, the sports editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In a July 1956 column, Keefe assailed Robinson as a “persistently insolent and antagonistic trouble-making Negro” and an “enemy of his race.” Robinson responded to Keefe with a letter that did more than just put a racist in his place. It also exposed the emptiness and idiocy of segregationist thought. “I am happy for you, that you were born white,” Robinson wrote. “It would have been extremely difficult for you had it been otherwise.”
Bill Keefe started in journalism seven years before Jackie Robinson was born, getting his first writing gig at the New Orleans Times-Democrat in 1912. He’d stay in the field for more than 50 years, earning renown among his white peers for his coverage of boxing, horse racing, and college football. Upon Keefe’s death in 1967, the Times-Picayune praised him as “one of the South’s (perhaps one of the nation’s) most entertaining, knowledgeable, popular sports writers and editors.” The sports editor of the Nashville Banner said Keefe was “the kindest, most gentle man I’ve ever known.” Grantland Rice once claimed that Keefe had “helped bring dignity to sports writing.”
Keefe did not extend that dignity to people of other races. When Aryan icon Max Schmeling knocked out American Joe Louis in 1936, Keefe wrote that the German heavyweight had “chased the black terror from out of the land, which now seems safe for all white heavyweights.” (Louis would get his revenge on Schmeling in their 1938 rematch.) Two decades later, in 1956, Keefe covered the first integrated Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and praised Pittsburgh’s Black fullback Bobby Grier for playing “a whale of a game.” Later that same year, the Louisiana Legislature passed a law banning all integrated sporting events from the state: no boxing matches with Black and white fighters in the same ring, no football games with Black and white players on the same field.
Bill Keefe didn’t say publicly that he supported the law. He did, however, argue that Louisiana lawmakers shouldn’t be blamed for passing it. Keefe wrote that anti-segregation activists had “built up opposition to integration” by claiming that racist incidents had taken place around that Sugar Bowl game. Those “warped” allegations, he argued, had created a backlash in Louisiana, making it easier for the segregation law to gain passage. Keefe also blamed Jackie Robinson, claiming that “no 10 of the most rabid segregationists accomplished as much as Robinson did in widening the breach between white people and Negroes.”
Keefe criticized Robinson relentlessly in the summer of 1956 for supposed breaches of both on-field and off-field conduct. First, Keefe branded Robinson a “troublemaker” for his “defamatory remarks” about the New York Yankees’ organizational prejudice against Black players. (In reality, Robinson’s statement was entirely accurate.) Keefe also wrote that Robinson had been “pampered and humored by the officials of organized baseball,” citing the fact that the Dodgers infielder hadn’t been suspended for tossing a bat that landed in the stands. (A pair of fans sued Robinson for $40,000, claiming the incident had caused them “severe nervous shock.” They’d settle out of court for $300 each.)
Keefe was most agitated, though, about those as-told-to pieces in the Pittsburgh Courier, the ones in which Robinson shared what he’d experienced as a Black ballplayer in the Southern United States. For Keefe, Robinson’s request for integrated accommodations—“Because we are traveling in the South there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to live with our teammates”—constituted an all-out assault on private commerce and states’ rights. “Perhaps Southern hotel owners will get together and decide to bankrupt themselves so Robinson will be satisfied,” Keefe wrote on July 18, 1956.
It was in that column that Keefe called Robinson a “persistently insolent and antagonistic trouble-making Negro” and an “enemy of his race.” Keefe ended his piece by writing that “sincere segregationists … should chip in and buy a plaque to present Robinson.” White Southerners, Keefe was arguing, would dismantle their apartheid society when they were good and ready, and that day might come more quickly if Jackie Robinson types kept their mouths shut.
Robinson was not inclined to stay quiet. On Aug. 4, 1956, the Louisiana Weekly, a Black newspaper, reported that Robinson had learned about Keefe’s column from an “insuranceman” who’d mailed him the clipping. Robinson sent that correspondent, Verdun Woods, a private response, telling him, “I really am proud that a man like Keefe dislikes me and what I stand for.” Robinson continued:
I don’t feel any anger toward his kind. Because I realize that true Americans are no longer letting his kind dictate what America is going to do and his fears are getting the best of him. […]
Let me assure you that as long as I have a voice I’ll stand up against what I consider injustices and will not worry about what a Bill Keefe thinks. […] Too many real Americans are in our corner and the Keefes and their fears will soon be forgotten.
Robinson sent a letter to Keefe, too, which the Louisiana Weekly published in full. That letter, which is reproduced in the book First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson, begins with Robinson telling Keefe that he’s writing to him “as one human being to another.” Robinson says that he and other Black Americans “ask only that we be permitted to live as you live, and as our nation’s constitution provides.” On the subject of accommodations, Robinson says that integrated hotels in cities such as St. Louis and Cincinnati “have not gone out of business. No investment has been destroyed.” In reference to Keefe calling him “insolent,” Robinson asks, “Am I insolent, or am I merely insolent for a Negro (who has courage enough to speak against injustices such as yours and people like you)?” And then, those immortal last two sentences, and a sign-off:
I am happy for you, that you were born white. It would have been extremely difficult for you had it been otherwise.
Two years after Robinson wrote those lines, a federal court found that Louisiana’s segregation law—the one Bill Keefe had accused Robinson of instigating—was “unconstitutional on its face.” The U.S. Supreme Court would agree, and as of 1959 integrated sports competitions were permitted in Louisiana, though true athletic desegregation in the state would take much longer.
Bill Keefe acknowledged the existence of Robinson’s letter in a column published on Aug. 10, 1956. In that piece, Keefe described how a pair of Black editors from the Louisiana Weekly had asked him to share his thoughts. “I told them it was a very nice letter,” Keefe explained, “but, since it had not changed my opinion in the least, I saw no reason to answer it.”
Later that month, the Pittsburgh Courier published excerpts of another letter, one that Keefe had written to an unnamed Louisiana pastor. In that note, Keefe made plain the full extent of his racist beliefs. He wrote that the “Divine Creator” had segregated Blacks and whites, and that Black people had thick skulls, apelike arms, and a “characteristic odor.”
“That’s the kind of stuff that we argued about,” said Isabelle Keefe Marrero, Bill Keefe’s only child. Marrero, who’s now 83 years old and living in Alabama, told me that her father “went to his death” with a racist mindset, “and that’s so sad to me.”
Before we spoke last week, Marrero didn’t know that Jackie Robinson had written a letter to her father. After reading that letter, she told me that Robinson’s missive had “so much humanity and character.” When she read the words her father had written, she couldn’t stop crying. “I just thought, this is a mountain of shit,” she said.
Marrero grew up around her father’s work, sitting with him in the press box at New Orleans’ Pelican Stadium. Keefe and his newsman friends used slurs constantly, she said, and their “whole view of Blacks was they’re not capable of learning anything, they’re not capable of acting as white society acts, they don’t have manners.” Marrero described her father as highly literate but not well educated; he dropped out of high school to help support his family. Keefe was an alcoholic, but a “pleasant, peaceful drunk.” Marrero’s mother, by contrast, was a “mean drunk,” and suffered from mental illness. Marrero said that she ran away from home as a teenager when her mother threatened her physically. She didn’t know about Robinson’s letter, she told me, because she was living with her grandmother in 1956, and she lost track of her father’s career.
Marrero said that she grew up with the same racist attitudes that her father did. She changed her views when she got married and moved to Aberdeen, Maryland, where her husband was in basic training. “That was my first experience with Blacks as an equal,” she said. “I was shocked that they were just like we were.”
When Marrero and her husband moved to Huntsville, Alabama, they sent their children to St. Joseph’s Catholic School. This was an act of “reverse integration”: The 12 white students who enrolled at St. Joseph’s in September 1963 joined 106 Black ones, making it the first racially integrated elementary school in the state. “I didn’t want my kids to grow up in the same situation as we did,” Marrero told the NAACP magazine the Crisis in 2003. “If you don’t learn that everybody is the same at an early age, it is going to be tough when you grow up.”
In 1965, Marrero launched the school’s first physical education program. She’d teach and coach at the school for 33 years. One of her students, Condredge Holloway, would become the first Black quarterback to play in the Southeastern Conference. Holloway, who starred at Tennessee in the early 1970s, went to college out of state because legendary coach Bear Bryant told him that Alabama wasn’t ready for a Black quarterback. He then played for more than a decade in the Canadian Football League, because the NFL, too, had very firm ideas about what Black athletes should and shouldn’t be allowed to do.
Marrero’s father never understood why she had Black friends. “He would just shake his head,” she said. “To him it was a whole different world that he didn’t want any part of.”
Fifty-four years after Bill Keefe’s death, and 49 years after Jackie Robinson’s, Marrero is still trying to understand who her father was and where his beliefs came from. This week, she dug through some old boxes and found a copy of a letter her father had addressed to a man in New Orleans. In that note, dated May 18, 1953, Keefe wrote that “the Negro stands on a lower evolutionary plane than the White man.” His sources, he said, were Encyclopedia Britannica and Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Encyclopedia.
“Wow,” Marrero wrote to me, “that’s where he got all that garbage he argued with me about!”
In one of our conversations, I asked Marrero about what Jackie Robinson had said about her father—that Bill Keefe was lucky that he was born white. “Oh, that’s very true. That’s very true,” she said. “You stop and think of the way my daddy thought. He thought Blacks were inferior. … So, what if he was Black? I mean, how would that work in his head? It would be very hard for him.”
This article is adapted from a segment of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Listen to the original segment below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.