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Jackie Robinson Fought For Justice in Baseball and in America

May 03, 1987|JUAN WILLIAMS | The Washington Post

Forty years ago this spring, Jackie Robinson broke through the barrier that kept blacks out of major league baseball. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed the infielder, and when Robinson, up from the minor leagues, took the field with his white teammates, a major symbol of segregated America began to crumble.

Football and basketball broke their color lines in 1948 and 1949, respectively, with their own "Jackie Robinsons" as major league sports faced up to a reality the rest of the country would not confront until ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954.

This year, major league baseball is putting Robinson's uniform number--42--on every second base in stadiums across the country on opening day as a reminder of the debt all baseball owes him. Robinson stood tall and alone in the face of the racist abuse--the balls thrown at his head, the pressure that came with every swing of the bat--as he came to represent Every Black Man in the struggle to prove that blacks were capable of competing in a white world.

Before the modern civil rights movement, before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., before the 1954 Brown decision desegregating public schools and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there was Jackie Robinson. He and the rest of the Dodgers were a living, heroic, daily example to the nation--evidence of integration's promise, proof that it could succeed.

Baseball's "Noble Experiment" was on the sports pages every day. The Dodgers traveled through Latin America, through the big cities, through small towns in spring training--particularly the South--challenging segregation on bus and train lines, in hotels and restaurants. They forced parents to explain to their children and themselves why black Americans were excluded from the Great American Game.

From 1947 to 1956, black America followed Robinson's every hit and stolen base, every fluctuation in his batting average, as if the race's fate rested on his baseball career. Robinson didn't whine that it was unfair to make him the flag bearer for black people. He shouldered the burden as a man who realized that he had been given a special opportunity to lead, that sports was just the first step.

It can be argued that he broke more barriers after he took his baseball uniform off.

As vice president of Chock Full O'Nuts, a highly visible chain of restaurants in New York, he became the most prominent black corporate officer in America. He helped start a black-owned bank in Harlem and was crucial in keeping it going. He started a company--still in operation--that builds and operates housing for working-class people in New York. He served as a key aide to New York's Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, and hammered at the Republican Party to appeal to black people. He argued civil rights with President Eisenhower and went toe-to-toe with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The life of Jackie Robinson doesn't fit the way we're used to seeing people with fame and money behave today, especially professional athletes. Athletes are content to be rich, famous and make money off their celebrity. Athletes today retire to the suburbs and come out only for Old Timers' games. Few active sports stars live in big cities, as Robinson did, living in New York neighborhoods for most of his baseball career. Jackie Robinson was different. Lord, how he was different.

Until he died in 1972 at the age of 53, he never turned his mind away from the racism, the economic inequities or the political powerlessness of blacks throughout America. He didn't use his fame and money to create an insulated paradise for himself.

On the base paths he was known for his fearlessness, and he took the same risks in the rest of his life, putting his popularity and career on the line with the powerful baseball hierarchy, the fans, and with other blacks, to do whatever he thought he had to do to help his people. He spoke his mind, and when he was wrong he was not afraid to admit it. In everything he did, he was passionate, daring, trying his hardest, fearing inaction and complacency more than the possibility of his own failure.

In trying to explain Jackie Robinson, his widow Rachel has a hard time. In 1987, Jackie Robinson doesn't make sense.

"He didn't see baseball as the peak of his life," said Rachel Robinson in describing her husband's decision to use his baseball fame as a weapon in agitating for changes in the larger arenas of American life, economics and politics. "He used baseball as a forum, used it for publicity, as a place where he could get his ideas across. He was in the forefront of thinking about black economic development, black political growth that was needed after the civil rights movement won the right to stay in hotels, ride the buses--Jack was going to the next stage, that's what Jack was about."

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