Jackie Robinson (1919 – 1972) is legendary for breaking the color barrier in major league baseball and excelling at America’s favorite pasttime. He became a national hero, and a particularly special one for Brooklyn Dodgers fans. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. For his entire life, with the exception of two strategic and difficult years when he promised Dodgers owner Branch Rickey to stay silent in the face of racial taunts, Robinson was an outspoken advocate for equality and civil rights, for himself and for all African-Americans.
Here are five years when Robinson took important personal and public stands, whether as an athlete or a civil rights advocate.
Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and before Rosa Parks rose to the spotlight in December 1955 by refusing to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, AL, Robinson took a stand as a commissioned second lieutenant in the US Army, in Texas. While riding a military bus, he refused the driver’s request that he move to the back. His defiance resulted in his arrest and a court martial trial. Robinson was acquitted, but the bitter experience led him to request an honorable discharge from the Army, which he was awarded in November. Read more about his case in a blog post by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
On baseball season’s opening day, April 15, Jackie Robinson made his debut in the major league as number 42, first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He not only faced the Boston Braves at the Dodgers’ home stadium Ebbets Field, he faced 26,623 people in the stands who were the first to witness a black player in the major leagues. Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier that day. Prior to it, news of his signing to the Dodgers had nearly precipitated a strike by National League clubhouses opposed to desegregating the sport. Robinson promised Dodgers owner Branch Rickey a silent reserve in the face of racism for his first two years and had a hard, but excellent, first season. He was named baseball’s first Rookie of the Year for his .297 batting average, 125 runs and 29 stolen bases. In September he was on the cover of Time magazine, which pointed out the racially-motivated, rough treatment opposing teams unleashed upon Robinson, writing: “It was only a month since Speedster Enos Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals, galloping into first base, had spiked First Baseman Jackie Robinson. Jackie, the first avowed Negro in the history of big-league baseball, looked at his ripped stocking and bleeding leg. It might have been an accident, but Jackie didn’t think so. Neither did a lot of others who saw the play. Jackie set his teeth, and said nothing. He didn’t dare to.”
Read the New York Times article on Robinson’s first game at Ebbets Field.
The year 1949 was Robinson’s finest in baseball. Among his accomplishments were raising his batting average to .342; earning 203 hits, 16 home runs, 124 runs batted in; leading the league in stolen bases (37); and placing second for doubles and triples. He was voted Most Valuable Player in the National League and fans voted him to start as second baseman in the first All-Star game to include black players.
The athlete had a momentous year outside the stadium, too. Robinson ended his silent reserve and began responding to fans’ and players’ rude taunts and spoke out against racial discrimination. Robinson also received an unexpected call to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee hoped he would strongly refute a claim about blacks made by the prominent singer and political activist Paul Robeson. Robinson merely called Robeson’s supposed statement “silly” and questioned why a baseball player was asked to take part in a “public argument.” In terms of Robinson’s personal life, he and his wife Rachel bought a home in St. Albans, Queens in the fall. Preparations were in full swing by the end of 1949 for the film The Jackie Robinson Story, which starred Robinson as himself, and Ruby Dee as his wife.
Two years after retiring from baseball and while working as a Vice President for Chock Full o’Nuts, Jackie Robinson began a weekly column in the sports section of the New York Post. It was written collaboratively with Bill Branch, but published under Robinson’s byline. The Post’s editor announced that the column would be the first attempt at “real national syndication” for a black writer.
Robinson made it a point to address issues beyond athletics. He drew attention to a lynching in Mississippi, criticized the bigotry of white Long Island residents who resisted school integration, and accused the Boston Red Sox of prejudice because it remained the only big league team without a black player.
A selection of Robinson’s columns in the New York Post and New York Amsterdam News make up the book Beyond Home Plate, edited by Michael G.Long.
In the spring, civil rights demonstrations were in full force to desegregate stores and lunch counters in Birmingham, AL, and Jackie Robinson traveled there to show his support. That year Robinson committed himself: “Whenever and wherever in the South the leaders believe I can help just the tiniest bit, I intend to go.” To raise bail money for jailed protesters, Robinson organized a fundraising concert with jazz greats on the lawn of his home in Stamford, CT.
On August 28, 1963, the entire Robinson family joined the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Remembering that day, Robinson wrote: “I have never been so proud to be a Negro. I have never been so proud to be an American.”
After a white supremacist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, killed four girls on September 15, 1963, Robinson helped organize a rally in front of the Hotel Theresa on 125th Street in Harlem. One of the speakers Robinson introduced was a longtime fan of Robinson: Malcolm X.