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

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.

Jackie even staged his own one-man sit-ins. The Dodgers stayed in the Chase Hotel when in St. Louis, which still barred African Americans from the lobby, dining room and swimming pool in 1954, until Jackie told the hotel manager, "I want it understood that I'm coming in here like just like all the other players, If I want to have a visitor, I'll have one. If I want to eat in the dining room, that's where I'll go." The hotel removed its racial barriers just days before the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision.

Rampersad puts this event in context, as well:

"That the Chase Hotel gave in before the Supreme Court ruled, and desegregated itself for a baseball team, suggests something about the deep significance of baseball, Rickey, and Robinson in the unfolding national drama about the passing of Jim Crow."

After the 1953 regular season, Jackie broke the color barrier again by taking an integrated team on a barnstorming tour through the South. When they arrived in Birmingham, city officials let their opposition to interracial play be known, and the white players sat out the game. Jackie and the team heeded the advice of African American and white Alabamans who feared an interracial game would allow Birmingham mayoral candidate Eugene "Bull" Connor to race-bait and win the election. Ten years later, Jackie would join Dr. King in Birmingham to confront "Bull" Connor, defeated as a mayoral candidate, but entrenched as Public Safety, Water Hose and Attack Dog Director.

Following his baseball career, Jackie barnstormed as a fundraiser and voting rights activist for the NAACP more than he had barnstormed as a ballplayer, traveling as far South as Jackson, Mississippi at the request of Medgar Evers. Even as an NAACP Board member, Jackie raised funds for Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The "Afternoons of Jazz" that he and Rachel hosted at their home raised thousands for the civil rights movement. These jazz fundraisers would eventually raise scholarship money for the institution which represents both of their legacies: the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

Jackie's disagreements with Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, often overshadowed his agreements with each of them, but not only was there mutual respect all around, Jackie's relationship with these figures as contemporaries, elevated him to a dual status: a transformative player on the field and a transformative player in civil rights. His life should be exemplary for the far too many athletes silent in the face of today's injustices.

Transformative, too, was Jackie in electoral politics. The correspondence Jackie had between Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller, respectively, was prolific and, on Jackie's part, unwavering in demand of civil rights. If a politician's civil rights agenda was lacking, so, too was Jackie Robinson's support and endorsement.

In fact, in the 1960 election, Jackie encouraged Nixon, his candidate of choice at the time to call Coretta Scott King when Dr. King was sentenced to four months in a Georgia prison. Nixon refused, costing him Jackie's ongoing support, and the costing him the election. Jack Kennedy had the good sense to call Mrs. King, and the resulting African American vote for Kennedy won him the election.

Being transformative in sports, and in civil rights came full circle in 1963. After being a key leader in bringing thousands to Washington, DC in 1958 and 1959 for the Youth March for Integrated Schools, Jackie, Rachel and the children participated in the March on Washington on August 28 -- the same day he met Branch Rickey in 1945.

Jackie, in everything he did, made us proud, made us adults, and made us men. Jackie proved that any one of us could be legendary. Jackie was one who gave us our dignity.

Watching 42, resurrected what I felt watching my heroes on my mother's TV. Watching my 10-year-old son watch 42 made me doubly proud, and even more so when I eavesdropped on his conversation with his peers after the movie. He said to them: "Jackie and his wife had a lot of guts."

If it is possible to come into the knowledge of one's own sense of dignity a second time, I have done so watching my son learn about Jackie. After all these years, Jackie still has that effect. Forty-two has hardly retired.

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