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'42': Jackie Robinson Fought for Equality Before Baseball Came Calling

The journey toward knowledge of sports in the last half of the 20th century begins with knowing Jackie -- and what he did off the field as a civil rights hero.

Cover of a Fawcett Publications comic book titled "Jackie Robinson".
Photo Credit: Library of Congress



I saw  42, and left the theater with my head high, chest swollen, back straight and eyes tearful with emotion. Sports can make us feel proud, especially, when our dignity and worth have been historically discounted in America.

I felt proud early in my life. Long before Barack Obama's historic campaign, even before Jesse Jackson's in 1984, I felt proud because of a single mother who encouraged her only son's dignity and manhood every time she turned on her tiny non-flat screen television to Muhammad Ali, or Dr. J, or Reggie Jackson. I felt proud when she turned the non-remote channel changer and adjusted the antenna for me to see Henry Aaron belt number 715, and John Thompson, Jr. on the way to compiling his .715 winning percentage. I was growing up proud, and getting a taste of manhood and dignity.

It did not take me long to learn who got the ball -- literally and figuratively -- rolling. In high school, I was intrigued that someone of Jackie Robinson's stellar accomplishments would entitle his memoir,  I Never Had It Made. "Hell, why didn't he?!" I asked, not aloud of course, before I understood his trials. Besides, the journey toward knowledge of sports in the last half of the 20th century begins with knowing Jackie--and not just what he did on the field, but what he did off it, especially as a civil rights hero.

Jackie's life was an early example of the intersection of sports and politics. Jack Johnson and Joe Louis both gave us pride and affected politics, but neither as directly as Jackie, nor at the advent of great sociopolitical movements. It seems Jackie was called. What others would later do as civil rights activists within movement organizations, Jackie would do, first, as an individual.

Eleven years before Rosa Parks became the mother of the modern civil rights movement by not giving up her seat aboard a Montgomery bus, Jackie refused to give up his seat aboard aboard a Camp Hood bus when he was in the military. This incident led to a  court martial in which Jackie was acquitted.

Jackie's 1947 integration of a major institution in American life, Major League Baseball -- America's most popular and most defining sport at that time -- is widely believed to have hastened the integration of another major institution in American life: the U.S. military. One year after Jackie broke the color barrier in baseball, President Harry S. Truman  ordered the desegregation of the military.

When Jackie first signed with the Brooklyn Dodger-affiliated Montreal Royals, Dodger President and General Manager  Branch Rickey, appropriately nicknamed "Mahatma," asked him to turn the other cheek to the racial hatred and violence that would be undoubtedly hurled his way. This practice of nonviolence, or passive resistance, in the face of injustice, would not be formally embraced as a strategy in the struggle for civil rights until the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did so years later. But Jackie early on proved its effectiveness in his struggle.

Arnold Rampersad writes in his captivating,  Jackie Robinson: A Biography:

"Thus, cannily acting out of both religious faith and a sympathetic grasp of political history, the Mahatma [Rickey] invoked the Christian counterpart of the ancient Hindu philosophy of satyagraha, or active nonviolence, which Mohandas K. Gandhi, the original Mahatma, had adopted in his long struggle for Indian independence from British imperialism. Within three years, in 1948, India would be free -- and Gandhi would be assassinated. Within less than a generation, black and white Christian ministers, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., would themselves invoke Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence to bring down the walls of segregation across the South."

Likewise, Jackie and his steadfast spouse, Rachel, were  Freedom Riders before there were Freedom Riders. She once told me how dangerous it was to travel on long bus trips unless she slept with one eye open. There was always the danger of violence, as was the case in 1947 at Spring Training in  Sanford, Fla., where death threats against Jackie and Rachel forced the Dodgers to move to Daytona Beach. Trayvon Martin reminds us how little Sanford has changed.

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