When Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey went looking for a Negro League ballplayer to cross baseball’s decades-old color line, he was not shopping merely for athletic ability, the historian John Thorn told us, he was shopping for character. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a twenty-six-year-old shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, had more than most.
Robinson had always carried himself with a sense of dignity and purpose, and he’d never been afraid to defend his rights. Growing up in Pasadena, California, he’d stood up to racist neighbors, local Jim Crow customs and the Pasadena policemen who were all too eager to blame him for anything they could. As a second lieutenant in the US Army during the Second World War, he had faced a court martial after refusing an order from a white civilian bus driver to move to the back of a military bus at Fort Hood, Texas – this was ten years before Rosa Parks’s own bold act of defiance on a Montgomery, Alabama bus.
Branch Rickey had done his homework. Yes, Rickey knew of Robinson’s remarkable athletic feats at UCLA, where he had starred in football, baseball and practically every other sport the school competed in, but Rickey was also aware of Robinson’s scrapes with the law and his early discharge from the U.S. Army after he was found not guilty of insubordination. Rickey was undeterred. In these incidents he saw a highly intelligent, stubborn and fiercely competitive man of deeply held convictions, a fighter who could withstand a withering barrage of hate and intolerance and still hold his own as a player. In Robinson, Rickey found his man.
Jackie Robinson performed brilliantly in his first season with the Dodgers, dazzling fans with his graceful blend of speed and power, all while “turning the other cheek” to the threats and abuse he faced in ballparks across the league. He was named Rookie of the Year, helped lead the Dodgers to the World Series and became one of the most beloved men in America. But the silent stoicism that marked his first days in the major leagues – the forbearance that we teach and celebrate to this day – was contrary to his character. He could not continue to keep quiet. Jackie Robinson, President Obama told us, “had purchased the right to speak his mind many times over.”
“What will you say?” asked the renowned singer and activist Harry Belafonte. “What will you say on behalf of those who cannot speak or cannot have the voice that you have?” Robinson would answer this question every single day. In the years after he integrated the majors, Robinson used his enormous fame to call attention to the injustice he saw both on and off the field, and it rarely won him friends. “Be a baseball player, not a crusader,” urged some in the press, who liked Jackie better when he had kept quiet. “Don’t rock the boat,” warned fans and teammates, who grew weary of Jackie’s outspokenness. But Jackie felt that, if he kept quiet, all the trophies and awards were worth nothing.
After baseball, he wrote hundreds of newspaper columns about inequality and injustice, stumped for politicians who he believed would best serve the interests of African Americans, and raised money for the NAACP and the SCLC. When Martin Luther King Jr. asked Robinson to help boost morale among civil rights workers in Georgia or Alabama, Jackie took the next available flight. Each time he lifted his voice, Jackie Robinson nudged us toward a better version of ourselves.
We are so grateful to our Bank of America family for helping us give Jackie Robinson another opportunity to speak out on behalf of everyone who doesn’t yet have the first class citizenship that they deserve.
Thanks for your support,
Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon