When Magic Johnson and his business partners purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers, sportswriters immediately started to make the correlation between Magic becoming the first black owner of a MLB team and the Brooklyn Dodgers signing/stealing Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs.
However, there is another historical link between the two athletes that situates Robinson’s civil rights legacy as an advocate of racial and economic justice with Magic Johnson’s business transaction. Both superstar athletes used their celebrity and capital to advance their ideologies about black capitalism and civil rights. In short, they believed that access to money and black consumption would help elevate the black community.
Jackie Robinson impacted American history beyond the baseball diamond and used his status to fight for civil rights. He persistently petitioned presidents, governors, senators, and congressmen about lynching, civil rights, and minimum wage laws. He raised funds for Martin Luther King Jr. and other nonviolent protesters that had been arrested in southern cities, and he brought numerous black athletes into the civil rights movement. However, by the mid-1960s, Jackie, like other civil rights advocates, realized that civil rights would be meaningless without economic justice. His sentiments about economic and civil rights aligned with many black leaders of the day. Some like King and Bayard Rustin advocated for democratic socialism, or the expansion of the federal government to eradicate poverty. While others like Malcolm X advocated for black capitalism and developing black businesses in black neighborhoods, saying “We have to teach our people the importance of where to spend their dollars and the importance of establishing their own business.”
Robinson combined the two thoughts and called on federal and local black action. In 1964, he became a critical component of an integrated group of businessmen and community leaders to open a bank in Harlem. When the Freedom National Bank opened in 1965, Jackie said “We need to fight on the civil right front, it is true. But it is just as important for us to make inroads on an economic level, if we are to solve some of our many problems. To do this, we will need to exercise the maximum of faith in ourselves and in each other.” Blacks had to have access to money and invest in local businesses in order to turn ghettoes into communities. Within the first five years Freedom National Bank and Harlem saw tremendous economic improvements. When the bank opened in January 1965 it only had $1.5 million, but by 1970 they had $30 million in till. In 1964, blacks owned only 19% of businesses in Harlem and five years later that number had ballooned to 38%. Robinson and the bank worked with the federal government and the Nixon administration to get small business loans for minorities.
After meeting with Nixon’s cabinet members regarding their responsibility to economically uplift the black community, Robinson noted “Unless immediate changes are made, we’re in for one of the worst racial confrontations we have ever seen.” In a subsequent meeting with the Senate subcommittee about race relations and economic justice he argued that franchising represented an important business solution to solving racial and economic problems and would help “bridge the gap between the races.” Robinson reasoned “franchising, by bringing in people and giving them a helping hand and an opportunity, would get people who have no confidence in white America to believe that there really is someone interested in them.” To be sure, while minority business loans from the federal government helped some black businesses, most of the problems of race and economic inequality remained.
Twenty years later, Magic Johnson carried Robinson’s torch. After the 1992 South Central Riots Johnson urged that blacks had to open more local businesses in Los Angeles. He told reporters that “the only way that we as Black people are going to get anything is through ownership, because ownership brings power.” Magic followed his own advice and started businesses in Los Angeles’s black neighborhoods. Like Robinson, he saw franchising as an essential route and opened successful theatres, Starbucks, Fat Burgers, and gyms. By the end of the decade his enterprises were worth nearly $500 million dollars and he employed thousands of workers. By the beginning of the latest recession Magic’s Business Enterprises had a private investment firm with a billion dollars in cash. Unlike his successful basketball business counterpart, Michael Jordan, Johnson’s capitalism has always been attached to empowering the black community.
Magic’s successful black capitalism not only helped keep dollars into the black community, but put him position to accomplish something Robinson could not do, and did not believe blacks were ready to do 40 years ago, buy a baseball franchise. When American League officials approached Robinson and other blacks about buying a franchise in 1969, presumably the Yankees, Robinson turned them down. Although he acknowledged that “it would be a healthy thing for baseball and blacks if they had proprietorship,” because of the symbolism it would bring if blacks owned a part of an American institution that for so longed denied them entry, Robinson reasoned that blacks did not have enough capital to purchase a franchise. Instead, he believed that an integrated team of investors, including him, could buy a team. Unfortunately, Jackie never saw that dream come to fruition, but Magic did. Let’s hope that buying the Dodgers is still part of his plan for the black community’s economic uplift.