"Jackie Robinson": Race, Then & Now

by Michael Sean Winters

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The last two nights, PBS aired a four-hour documentary on the life of Jackie Robinson. Produced by Ken Burns the documentary was splendidly well done, allowing the complexities in Robinson’s life to emerge, complexities that were muted in the movie “42” which came out a few years back. What was fascinating, and very sad, was the realization that race continues to haunt American political and cultural life.

Jackie Robinson faced the same pressures to perform on the ball field as the white players. He, like they, was a young man in his twenties, navigating the spotlight that comes with prominence in sports. He, like they, had to balance his life on the field with his life off the field, his marriage and the birth of a son. But, unlike the white players, Robinson was the first black man to play in the major leagues. The pressures that attend being “the first” in any endeavor are extraordinary, but when being the first entails crossing a color barrier, the pressures are almost unimaginable. Jackie handled those pressures.

In the documentary, First Lady Michelle Obama recalls being told “You have to be better than good.” This is what Jackie was told also. It is a heavy psychological burden on a young person. I thought of Andrew Tobias’ groundbreaking book “Best Little Boy in the World” about growing up gay, and wondered which is harder: to have to prove oneself continually when people do not know you are different or when, in the case of Robinson, they can see that you are different?

The documentary discusses the different perspectives of Robinson and fellow Dodger Roy Campanella, the second black player on the team. Campanella had been raised poor in Philadelphia. He felt lucky to be playing in the major leagues and that was enough for him. Robinson, born in Georgia and son of a sharecropper, moved to Pasadena, California when he was one year old. He went to UCLA. There was prejudice, to be sure, but nothing like what was faced by Campanella. For Robinson, he did not feel “lucky” to be playing in the majors. He felt he had earned his place on the Dodger team. The verdict of history is clear on this point: It was baseball, not Robinson, who was the lucky one.

Despite being a star, the Robinsons had trouble finding a home for their growing family when they went looking in the Connecticut suburbs of New York. Real Estate agents did not want to show them properties, or showed them inappropriate properties. Their plight came to the attention of Richard and Andrea Simon. Richard was the co-founder of the publishing firm Simon and Schuster and his wife was a civil rights activist. Their daughter, Carly, became a singer-songwriter. The Simons not only helped the Robinson’s locate a five acre parcel in Stamford, they had the family live with them while the Robinson’s house was being built. I know that there is a tendency among some whites to over-emphasize the role white people played in the civil rights movement, but it is important to note that some whites, not enough, did confront the racism of their culture.

I had not known that Robinson supported Richard Nixon in his race for the presidency against Jack Kennedy. Robinson developed a strong relationship with the liberal, Republican Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller but he bolted the GOP when they nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. He was active in the civil rights movement until his death, supported Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his non-violent efforts, and spurned the more militant activists. Though he had been seen as the impatient, even sometimes confrontational, black athlete compared to Campanella and others, in his later years, he understood the need to link the cause of his race with the founding ideals of the United States. “I have never been more proud to be a Negro,” he said after the March on Washington in 1963. “I have never been more proud to be an American.

What was disturbing to me about the documentary was how the issues and challenges being portrayed from sixty and seventy years back are still so obviously real in our own day. When President Obama and the First Lady speak about Jackie Robinson’s challenges, you know that they are speaking from personal experience. And, when Jackie’s widow Rachel speaks about how the racism in the North was sometimes more insidious than that in the South, precisely because it was less obvious, that still rings true.

Indeed, in this morning’s Washington Post, there is a front page story about a white supremacist who confronted a black woman at a Donald Trump rally last month in Louisville, Kentucky (home of Robinson’s teammate Pee Wee Reese). “Get out! Liberal scum! Get out!” he shouted at air, as threatening as a person can be without crossing over into actual, criminal assault. When Trump says he wants to “Make America Great Again!” many of his followers hear “Make America White Again!” Trump is not above appealing to the lower angels of our nature.

The Democrats, too, are stumbling over the issue of race. They do need to reckon with the different way America, including the Clintons and Sen. Sanders, confronted the drug epidemic of the 1990s, which really was destroying neighborhoods, many of them inner city, predominantly minority neighborhoods. But the remedy, mass incarceration, also took its different toll on those neighborhoods. Why, today, with the heroin and opioid epidemic afflicting many white, rural towns, are we talking about rehabilitation instead of incarceration? I would hope that it is because we have learned about the limits of incarceration from the 1990s, but I know that it is not the whole story. On the other hands, it was shocking to see none of the Democratic presidential candidates confront the obnoxious question, “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?” in a morally intelligent way. They pandered, which is another subtle form of segregation, no?  The correct answer: “The question is false. If black lives do not matter than all lives do not matter and if all lives do not matter than black lives do not matter.” This is ethics 101.

America’s fraught racial history is still with us. The story is still being written. The last two nights, PBS and Burns delivered one chapter in that story, a noble, difficult, challenging chapter. There are many challenges we face as a nation still that pertain to race, but we also face today a question that I had thought we had finished with, whether we will allow white supremacist thinking and language back into the political mainstream. Two steps forward, one step back. Jackie Robinson took two steps, maybe even five steps, forward, by ending the segregation in our national pastime. What have the rest of us done lately to heal the racial divisions in America? One thing we can do is this: Say “No” to the race-baiting we see and vote accordingly. 

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