We have reached Black History Month here in February, and just a couple weeks ago our nation celebrated Martin Luther King Day. While there is much to be done regarding matters of prejudice and racism in this nation, I would venture that we've come a long way from where we were. Rosa Parks, Dr. King, and others deserve much credit for their roles in the civil rights movement.
Now regarding that movement, I recognize it may seem daunting to ask, "Who had the most impact?" Because I am a Caucasian male, one could even say I could only make such an assessment allowing that I'm coming at it from outside my experience. That's fair. But I think it's difficult for anyone to make the call on the "greatest impact" question in any movement. In the Protestant Reformation, certainly John Calvin did yeoman's work giving maturity to Protestant theology and churchmanship, but he was not an initiator, not a starter of trends. If Calvin did not have a gutsy firebrand like Martin Luther (for whom Dr. King was named, incidentally) begin the reforming conversation in Wittenberg in 1517, the movement wouldn't have been what it was.
That's why I think major movements--of which the American civil rights story is one--have individuals playing essential roles of general, powder keg spark, and pioneer. There's no doubt that Dr. King was the general, and that Rosa Parks--in her refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus--was the powder keg spark that launched the protests (although others had resisted bus segregation before). But before Dr. King, and before Rosa Parks, there was the pioneer.
Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson. In my honest opinion, he was civil rights.
Yesterday, January 31st, would have been Jackie Robinson's 95th birthday. This extraordinary man, who was taken from us too soon in 1972, entered into a cauldron of seething and blistering civic racism and--as Gap Band would say--"dropped a bomb" on our culture, one that was sorely needed. Robinson's entry into the major leagues ended the segregation that had relegated black baseball players to the Negro Leagues for six centuries, and he endured unspeakable vitriol and epithets to do so.
The back story to his joining the Brooklyn Dodgers is nothing less than extraordinary. A good deal of the cinematic tale can be viewed in the film 42, in which Chadwick Boseman played Jackie, Nicole Behaire plays his wife Rachel, and Harrison Ford gives an amazing performance as Dodgers' owner Branch Rickey, invoking Robinson's signing as a moral issue ("He's a Methodist, I'm a Methodist, and God's a Methodist…We can't go wrong!). What the film captures so well from real life is the exchange that Rickey and Robinson had leading up to the signing. Robinson asked, "Are you looking for a ball player to fight back?" To which Rickey said, "I'm looking for a ballplayer with the guts enough not to fight back." And that, folks, was quintessential Robinson, who endured carping and abuse from fans, opposing managers, hotel clerks, and all sides, but shrugged them off even though he'd have been justified with taking a bat and going medieval on the whole lot. His accomplishments are legion: 1947 National League Rookie of the Year, 1949 batting champion and Most Valuable Player, two-time stolen bases champion, six-time All-Star, and member of the 1955 World champion Dodgers in their stirring seven-game triumph over the Yankees.
It's true that when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 that Robinson humbly urged people to focus on his on-field endeavors and not his cultural impact, but his work in that arena cannot be understated. For the first time, America writ large experienced the reality of a black man (and, with Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, and others…black men) competing and excelling on the same level playing field (pun intended) as anyone else. I would contend, then, that the work of Parks, King, and all who followed had teeth firmly anchored into the reality of change because Robinson had charged through the Red Sea of previous hardship. Much like Martin Luther of the Reformation, if Jackie Robinson had not done what he did, American civil rights would not have had the story and legacy it enjoys today. The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin stated that "Robinson's efforts were a monumental step in the civil-rights revolution in America…His accomplishments allowed black and white Americans to be more respectful and open to one another and more appreciative of everyone's abilities." In truth, shouldn't that be one of the goals of such a movement?
None of this is meant to take away what people like Dr. King accomplished, for King was able to take the threads of a movement and through his leadership he wove a tapestry of hope stamped with the dream which he orated so well. But in my honest opinion, Jackie Robinson opened the floodgates and caused the healing waters of truth and justice to start flowing over a morally parched American landscape. Robinson is the pioneer to which we all owe a debt of gratitude. His teammate Don Newcombe--the first black pitcher to win twenty games in a season--had this to say, "What Jackie did in baseball did more to tear down racism than anything else. No one will need to do anything of the sort, for it won't be necessary again." Even Dr. King once remarked to Newcombe, "Don, you and Jackie will never know how easy you made my job through what you went through on the baseball field."
So happy belated birthday, and here's to you, Mr. Robinson. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for showing the goodness and the guts of being the trailblazer you were, for bearing the truth of the words of sportswriter Burt Kahn: "Robinson bore the burden of a pioneer, and the weight made him strong."