Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports, and the American Dream

12 Dec 2008

As a witness to many defining moments in our nation’s history, I am immensely proud of Sen. Barack Obama’s historic achievements. He is the candidate of principle and optimism and is committed to restoring a sense of national community. I’m delighted to be counted among millions of Americans in support of his candidacy for president.—Rachel Robinson (Powell, 2008).

January 20th, 2009 will be a monumental day in American history. On that day Barack Obama will be inaugurated as our 44th President. He will be the country’s first African-American President. The magnitude of this cannot be underestimated, as its ramifications will reverberate across the globe. This is a mammoth blow to racism, although racism is not dead, even with the election of a black President. Racism persists and the struggle will continue. Throughout our history, there have been many individuals who have overcome the barriers of race in our society, which lead to the November 4th election victory of Barack Obama. However, it is Jackie Robinson who first created the achievable from the unattainable. Jackie Robinson had prevailed over astounding adversity, immeasurable intimidation and pressure to shatter our national pastime’s race barrier. Especially in his first year, every time Jackie laced up his cleats, he had an entire nation judging not only him, but his race. With the election of Barack Obama as our next President, there should be another RBI added to Jackie Robinson’s totals. Without Jackie Robinson, it could be assured that Barack Obama would never have even been on the ballot. Jackie Robinson’s accomplishments go way past what he did on a baseball diamond. His continued influence and profound effect on society culminated on November 4th, 2008, some sixty one years after he debuted for the Dodgers. Jackie Robinson’s impact on the integration of Major League Baseball is undeniable. However, that is only a small part of the Jackie Robinson story. Robinson helped integrate America. In classrooms, universities, physician’s offices and Wall Street there are now millions of African Americans, where before Jackie, there was barely a trickle. He made America acknowledge that given an equal chance, blacks are just as eligible and qualified as anyone else. Jackie Robinson transcended baseball. He helped knock down the prejudices that have kept us apart. The election of Barack Obama is truly an event of epic proportions. All Americans, regardless if you supported Senator Obama or not, owe a debt of gratitude to Jackie Robinson who led the way at a time in our history, when our society was not open to change of this magnitude. The fruits of his labor will have never been more realized than on January 20th, 2009.

Jackie Robinson was not known for turning the other cheek when it came to racial insults, slurs or discrimination. He stood up for his rights, and if that meant it came to fisticuffs, Jackie would not back down. Restraint was not in Jackie’s DNA.

However, when Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers President, chose Robinson to be the first black to cross the Major League’s color barrier, restraint was exactly what he had in mind. Branch Rickey knew this would not be an easy task. There would be alienation, outright bigotry, threats to his physical safety. And it would be coming from all directions. Opposing players, owners, fans and even some teammates were all guilty of intolerance.

Conceivably, the exchange sited below between Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson may have been the most significant in sports history.

Rickey: “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”

Robinson: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”

Rickey, exploding: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back” (Schwartz).

Branch Rickey’s foresight in regards to the racism that Jackie would encounter became a reality. As Sports Illustrated‘s Bill Nack wrote: “Robinson was the target of racial epithets and flying cleats, of hate letters and death threats, of pitchers throwing at his head and legs, and catchers spitting on his shoes” (Schwartz).

Somehow through it all Jackie Robinson abided by his promise to exercise self-control. He kept his cool and his silence while undergoing enormous anxiety and stress.By doing so, he earned the respect of those he played with and against. Jackie Robinson showed the world that he would not let racism bring him down. He could take it and he could still excel and overcome.

A few years later, Robinson was free from the shackles of restraint. He had already proved to all that he could play this game. He could play at such a high level in fact that only a handful could match. White or black. The fiery Jackie was back, and injustice was no longer to stand intact.

Brooklyn was the prime location for Jackie Robinson to break into the Major Leagues. Unlike most of the nation, Brooklyn was, and still is, a collection of a variety of cultures and races. Even so, barely any Black Americans would attend a Dodger game at Ebbets Field before 1947. Instead, they would support the popular Negro Leagues. However, with Robinson’s arrival to the Majors, Ebbets Field would be packed with both whites and African-Americans alike. The Dodgers attracted 1.8 million fans in 1947. This was a new season record. In fact, four other National League teams set attendance records in 1947. Announcer Red Barber stated that “wherever Jackie played, he drew large crowds. He became the biggest attraction in baseball since Babe Ruth. Robinson put serious money into the pockets of every National League owner” (Fitter). By simply playing a sport like baseball, Jackie essentially brought the two races together who joined for a common goal—success for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Baseball was the most popular sport in America throughout the first half of the 20th century. It was a sport that all Americans could relate to, but it was not exempt from the deep rooted prejudice of the “gentleman’s club” and the “separate but equal” clause. Although there was no influx of black players into the Major Leagues after Jackie, the floodgates did open for a new African-American fan base. Black Americans all around the nation became instant fans of the Dodgers. Jackie Robinson’s prominence was not limited to Brooklyn by any means.

It is difficult to perceive how our society would be today if it was not for the integration of our national pastime. Pee Wee Reese, a white Dodger teammate, would never have had the opportunity to put his arms on Robinson’s shoulders while Robinson was being heckled by opposing fans. Millions of baseball fans would not have witnessed that blacks are just as proficient as whites both on and off the field. Black and white fans would not have come together in unison to cheer on their favorite teams. These are the images that have left an indelible imprint upon the consciousness of the American people.It is possible that the Supreme Court still would have ordered school desegregation. It is possible that Jim Crow statutes still would be outlawed in the 1960’s. It is possible that the 1965 Voting Rights Act still would have passed Congress. It is possible that Martin Luther King still would have widespread support amongst both blacks and whites. All of the above are possible, but all of the above are highly unlikely, especially for the times in which they occurred. It would be safe to assume that our social norms, our worldview and the pathways our lives have taken would be completely different if not for Jackie Robinson being the first to breakthrough the color barrier of Major League baseball.

Jackie Robinson always charted his own course, satisfying his own set of beliefs. There were many times throughout his life that others complained about his predilections. His choices in the political arena were no different. He did prove that no one political entity could take his support for granted either.

I guess you’d call me an independent, since I’ve never identified myself with one party or another in politics. I always decide my vote by taking as careful a look as I can at the actual candidates and issues themselves, no matter what the party label. –Jackie Robinson (Robinson, Jackie Robinson Quotes).

Although in the above quote, Jackie states that he is an independent, a closer look at his political involvement reveals that Jackie could be considered a moderate or “Rockefeller Republican”. Jackie Robinson was a passionate capitalist, with a strong aversion to Communism. He often stated that hard work and self reliance was the most effective way to advance the cause of racial equality:

How much more effective our demands for a piece of the action would be if we were negotiating from the strength of our own self reliance rather than stating our case in the role of a beggar or someone out for charity. We live in a materialistic society in which money doesn’t only talk — it screams (Robinson, I Never Had It Made, 1995).

Jackie Robinson observed a nation that had to defeat racial discrimination. His strong belief in equality and fairness was the trademark of his life. Long before he became a dominant and inspiring personality, he refused to sit at the back of the Army bus at Fort Hood, despite the risk of severe personal repercussions. This happened eleven years before Rosa Park’s famous refusal to move to the back of the bus in Alabama in 1955. Jackie possessed the inner fortitude, conviction and mettle to protest wrongs that were prevalent in American culture, before he ever had an at bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was subsequently court-martialed for his action on the bus, however he was acquitted. Jackie Robinson could have retired and rested on his laurels—just another name hanging on a plaque in Cooperstown. A name to be quickly glanced over by future generations with a historical footnote, but instead he took advantage of his baseball fame. After retirement, he continued to utilize the press to make a difference from outside the stadium.

In later years, Jackie’s greatest gift was that he understood how he could use the power of his celebrity to advance the cause of Civil Rights. It surely would have been easier, less controversial to just show up at promotional events and sign autographs. This however, was not the Jackie Robinson way. He wanted to make a difference. After his retirement from baseball he became politically active. He was in communication with every President from Eisenhower to Nixon until he died in 1972. As stated earlier, Jackie Robinson did champion moderate Republicans, such as New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller, in turn, named Robinson Special Assistant for Community Affairs in 1966, with the task of improving the governor’s standing among black residents of New York. Robinson answered disapproval of his association with the Republican Party as a means for the black outlook on issues to be heard. However, Robinson did not shy away from supporting any candidate regardless of party affiliation, especially if they were espousing clear and resolute policies on civil rights issues. He was at the forefront supporting Republicans for Lyndon B. Johnson candidacy against Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican nominee in the 1964 Presidential election(Rampersad, 1997).

Bill Keefe, sports editor of the Times-Picayune of New Orleans wrote an editorial blaming Jackie Robinson’s insolent behavior for a law passed in Louisiana that criminalized interracial sports. Robinson quickly responded in a letter dated July 23, 1956, and stated:

We ask for nothing special, we ask only that we be permitted to live as you live, and as our nation’s Constitution provides. We ask only, in sports, that we be permitted to compete on an even basis and, if we are not worthy, then the competition, per se shall eliminate us (Long, 2007).

He was a staunch believer that success on the field, or in the work place or classroom be earned. Jackie only demanded that parity be given in all cases. However, this yearning to realize equal opportunity through traditional methods put him at odds with the more extreme elements of the civil rights struggle. As the civil rights movement progressed, Some of Robinson’s positions caused some black leaders to label him an “Uncle Tom”
Jackie was ridiculed in some parts of the black community for expressing sentiments such as “Stokely Carmichael’s version of Black Power, can only get us more George Wallaces elected to office” (Rampersad, 1997).

Even though he respected Malcolm X and his pronouncements of optimism, he had contempt on his viewpoint of hatred. He feuded with Malcolm X him for describing blacks like Ralph Bunche, the U.N. Ambassador, for selling out to white people, saying, “Malcolm is very militant on Harlem street corners where militancy is not dangerous,” but that he lacked “one-twentieth of the integrity and leadership” of a man like Bunche(Fabrizio, 2007).

Jackie deeply admired Martin Luther King Jr., and certainly promoted his vision of equality, although he did have a stark difference on the war in Southeast Asia. Robinson did lead in fund-raising efforts for the churches that were intentionally burned to the ground in Georgia. In regards to the Vietnam War, they did hold opposing views.Jackie felt that Martin Luther King’s anti-war stance would actually have a backlash that would make it more difficult to advance the civil rights movement. Robinson queried his friend King saying, “Why is it, Martin, that you seem to ignore the blood which is upon [Communist] hands and to speak only of the ‘guilt’ of the United States?” (Long, 2007).

Robinson and King did discuss their differences, with neither able to alter the other’s position. Jackie was able to understand King’s position on the war, given his non-violence philosophy.

Perhaps Jackie’s most infamous row was with the actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson. Robeson was a well known devotee of Josef Stalin, which earned him the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952. Before a Parisian left leaning audience in 1949 he affirmed:

It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country [the Soviet Union] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.—Paul Robeson (International Activism).

Throughout his life, Paul Robeson refused to ever criticize the Soviet Union, even after presented with credible evidence of atrocities. He did not refrain from such criticism of the United States.

In 1949 the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Jackie Robinson to refute Paul Robeson’s assertion that African Americans would not fight for America in a war with the Soviet Union. Jackie Robinson testified that blacks would, “do their best to help their country win the war — against Russia or any other enemy that threatened us” (Long, 2007).

At the same hearing Robinson continued:

I can’t speak for any 15,000,000 people any more than any other one person can, but I know that I’ve got too much invested for my wife and child and myself in the future of this country, and I and other Americans of many races and faiths have too much invested in our country’s welfare, for any of us to throw it away because of a siren song sung in bass.

Robinson closed his testimony with:

But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop fighting race discrimination in this country until we’ve got it licked. It means that we’re going to fight it all the harder because our stake in the future is so big. We can win our fight without the Communists and we don’t want their help. (Smith, 1979).

It should be noted that in his autobiography I Never Had It Made Jackie Robinson offered a gentler understanding of Robeson, as one who sacrificed and suffered for his people. Jackie did not recant his remarks he made before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

When Jackie Robinson retired from baseball, he did not go quietly into the night. Jackie was able to use his celebrity that he gained from being a ballplayer to advance the causes most dear to his heart. The New York City restaurant chain Chock Full O’Nuts hired him as Director of Personnel. He worked tirelessly to further the aspirations of the Southern Christian Leadership (SCLC) and the B’nai Brith organizations. In Harlem, Jackie was a community activist playing a pivotal role with the Harlem YMCA, and other social organizations. Robinson was a central figure in the founding of the minority owned and controlled Freedom Bank in Harlem. He served as their chairman from 1964 until 1972. In 1970 Jackie established the Jackie Robinson Construction Company. The aim and focus of both the bank and construction venture was to further improve the lives of inner city blacks (The Jackie Robinson Foundation).

Robinson also joined in frequent demonstrations opposing intolerance. Jackie had organized a march on Washington D.C. to integrate the schools. Due to his fame and stature he was able to help attract tens of thousands for the event. Robinson was elected to the board of directors for the NAACP. Eventually Jackie grew disenchanted with the NAACP and resigned in 1967. He felt that they were failing to adequately listen and heed the concerns of black youth and their reformist ideas. Jackie stated:

I believe they have not done enough to gain the confidence of the little man in the street. The average person is waiting to see the leaders take an aggressive stand (Robinson and the NAACP).

Jackie never totally abandoned the organization. Despite his opposition with their leadership, Jackie continued to serve the NAACP, throughout his life.

Jackie Robinson refused to participate at an Old Timer’s Day event held at Yankee Stadium in 1969, in protest of baseball’s failure to hire black managers and front office personnel. In 1975, the Frank Robinson (no relation) became the nation’s first African American Major League Baseball manager. Jackie Robinson did not live to see it, but he certainly set the foundation in place to make it possible. Jackie’s influence and groundbreaking achievements was not lost on Frank Robinson. Frank’s concern was that the young players were not as aware of Jackie Robinson’s contributions and struggle as they should be.

I want them to be sure about what he did, not only on the field … I think what Jackie Robinson did off the field was even more significant. I think he brought a country together with his play on the field. He showed the people that blacks should be treated equal, be just as good if not better than the white players (Frank Robinson on Jackie Robinson’s legacy, 2007).

Sports in general and baseball in particular are very much a part of the social ethos of this country. Athletes are tremendous role models, especially for our youth. Many sports figures will deny, or even reject that status. However, the overwhelming evidence is certainly supported. One can just read a magazine or turn on the television and see the multitude of endorsements and commercials that sports figures avail themselves to. Companies such as Nike, Home Depot and Kellogg’s would not spend millions of dollars on ad campaigns, if they were not receiving a positive return on their investment. The reality is that most people are more familiar with the back pages of the newspaper rather than the front pages. The impact of sports on our nation is not always in a positive light. Just within the past few months, star athletes have been accused of drug use, illegal weapons possession, illegitimate gambling and cheating. The former star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons is serving prison time on dog fighting charges. In 2004, there was a brawl at a basketball game involving players and spectators that made the headlines across America. It is impossible to think these images, are not emulated by the most impressionable amongst our population, our young people. If one was to attend a youth hockey game, there would be a fair chance that you could be a witness to an on-ice altercation. They could be as young as nine or ten. This could only be learned behavior by watching their hero’s playing in the NHL. The trash talking of the NBA has trickled down to the playgrounds of our cities. Parents and friends attending these youth events also have been known to go way past appropriate behavior. Sports in America are serious business. Either at the major league level or the pee wee level. This is why Jackie Robinson is so special. People took him seriously. They took his actions seriously. For sure at the beginning of his career, the talk around the water cooler was all about his race, but eventually the chat turned to how he stole home in the game the night before. Today, you never hear of Derek Jeter’s race, just his performance. Jackie used his stature and popularity to help bring about social change. Jackie Robinson as a Hall of Fame athlete was able to have a potent influence on our culture. Jackie Robinson, the successful brick layer surely would have had a bit less influence. The impact of sports, for good or bad, should not be underestimated.

The societal implication of the signing of Jackie Robinson to be the first African American Major League Baseball player has had a profound and lasting affect not only on blacks, but on the entire American culture and the American psyche. Robinson’s ascension to the Major Leagues did spawn jubilation among black Americans and that is obvious. For some, the burdens of the past were at long last relieved after years beset with inequality. Jackie Robinson was a Hall of Fame baseball player, however none of his exploits on the field measures up to the civil rights breakthrough he had, and its effect on all Americans. President- elect Barack Obama has stated that he is studying Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, to learn from those administrations. It certainly would be wise counsel for the President-elect to read up on Jackie Robinson, the trailblazer for minorities of all races to prove that given an equal opportunity, they could stand toe to toe with whites and excel in all areas. The lessons Barack Obama can learn from Jackie Robinson would be invaluable in his journey to lead America during these challenging times.


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