I spent a lot of years searching for my personal Civil Rights hero. History classes taught me the big names: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, President John F. Kennedy. None of them connected with me. None had the mixture of goodness, integrity, and grit that makes someone my hero.
And then, in my mid-twenties, I got Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball (1994) from the library. As I made my way through the series, I became fascinated by Jackie Robinson and how he used his athletic skills and personal courage to show the world that the color of a person’s skin had nothing to do with their worth and abilities. When I subsequently read Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had it Made, I knew I’d found my Civil Rights hero at last. A kind, stubborn, dignified Christian, Robinson was everything I wanted in a hero.
Born to Georgia sharecroppers, Jack Roosevelt Robinson grew up poor, but determined. His father left the family when Jack was still a baby, so his mother moved her five children all the way out to California, where she worked whatever jobs she could find and saved up enough money to buy a house in a nice neighborhood. They were the only non-white family on their street.
Jack Robinson excelled at sports in high school and Pasadena Junior college, playing on various varsity teams. But he also gained a reputation for combativeness, standing up for other African-American students when he thought they were being unfairly treated due to their race. He nearly got suspended at least once over his resistance to inferior treatment.
After junior college, Jack Robinson — nicknamed Jackie by newspaper reporters — went to UCLA, where he met his future wife, Rachel Isum. Although he did well athletically at UCLA, Robinson was restless. He quit school just a few months short of graduation. About that time, the US entered WWII, and Robinson applied for Officer Candidate School, graduating with a commission as a second lieutenant. He asked Rachel Isum to marry him, and they made plans for the future.
But in the summer of 1944, Jack Robinson faced a court martial. The Army did not have segregated buses on the Texas base where he was stationed, but one day, a bus driver told Robinson to move to the back of the bus. Robinson refused and got arrested. His court martial acquitted him, but he missed out on seeing combat duty because the rest of his unit shipped overseas while he was awaiting his trial. Later that year, the Army gave him an honorable discharge.
In 1945, the Kansas City Monarchs signed Jackie Robinson to play baseball in the Negro League. Baseball was entirely segregated — Major League Baseball had been white-only since the 1880s, though there were no formal, legal rules prohibiting athletes of other races from playing. Rather, there was a “gentleman’s agreement” among the team owners and managers that prohibited hiring non-white players. In the mid-1940s, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey set out to challenge that agreement. He scouted the Negro League for someone who not only played excellent baseball, but who could withstand the scrutiny and abuse that would crash down on the first black man to step onto major-league baseball diamonds.
Robinson had a reputation for not only refusing to back down in the face of racial aggression, but asserting his equality. The incidents in the military and his school days pointed to his being someone who would not stand still and endure racial taunts, threats, and aggression. But Robinson promised not to fight back against whatever abuse came his way, and Rickey signed him to play with the Montreal Royals, the minor league team associated with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Jackie and Rachel Robinson got married at last. Robinson played in the minors until April 15, 1947, when he made his major league debut by taking the field with the rest of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was 28, old by baseball standards, but played so well he wound up being named Rookie of the Year.
He endured the hatred of millions. Some of his own teammates didn’t want to play with him at first and threatened to sit out any game he played. People in the stands screamed racial slurs at him. One opposing player deliberately gashed Robinson’s leg with his spiked cleats. Others taunted him while on the field. Strangers sent death threats not just to Robinson, but to Rickey and others associated with the Dodgers.
The American League also signed a black player, Larry Doby, just a few months after Robinson joined the National League. In 1948, both leagues accepted more black athletes, and the pressure on Robinson eased up somewhat. He played better than ever, and by 1949 he was voted Most Valuable Player in the league. A remarkable achievement, considering three years earlier, many in the league actively worked to keep Robinson and other black players out.
Robinson retired from baseball in 1956, due to his age and ill health. He suffered from diabetes, and a life of constant athletic activity was catching up with him. After leaving baseball, he had a successful business and banking career. He was a devoted husband and father, and a regular churchgoer. And he was active in the emerging Civil Rights Movement, attending marches, giving speeches, and lending moral support to those engaged in sit-ins and freedom rides. He used his fame to gain attention for the movement and worked with leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and being active in the NAACP.
Jackie Robinson once said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me … all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” I think that’s all any of us can ask from people around us — respect as a human being. Let my actions, my personality, or my words gain your like or dislike, but treat me with the respect you would give any other person because they are created in the image of God.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s book “Cloaked” now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com