The Impact It Has On Other Lives

Grave of Jack Roosevelt Robinson, Cypress Hills Cemetery, Queens

While standing at Jackie Robinson’s grave last week, I noticed among the baseballs and bats left at his headstone by devoted admirers a small, modest American flag. While Jackie’s heroism on the baseball field as the first black player in the major leagues was one of the most important symbolic contributions in the history of the American civil rights movement, the flag is as much a sign of Jackie’s service to his country during the Second World War.

In fact, it was during Robinson’s service in the Army and an incident initially barring him from applying for Officer Candidate School on racial grounds that arguably was the opening shot in his patriotic career as a warrior for integration. More than a decade before Rosa Parks launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, Robinson was court-martialed (and eventually acquitted) for his own refusal to move to the back of a military bus in 1944. The original tank unit from which he was transferred as the result of the court martial, the 761st battalion, was the first all-black tank unit to be deployed overseas in the war. Imagine how history may have been different had this baseball and civil rights hero been deployed and killed overseas.

Many battles for justice fought on many different fronts. “The arc of history is long,” Martin Luther King taught, “but it bends toward justice.”

We see this over and over again in our world as battles for justice, freedom and equality animate and continue to occupy the civic debates in our own age. And as another Veterans Day fades into the cooling days and nights of Autumn, it’s worth reflecting that with no compulsory service of any kind in the United States, the only place where young people of all backgrounds gather and are required to live among and learn from each other is the college campus. It should come as no surprise then, that the kinds of debates we are still having in America about the role of race, gender and discrimination are playing themselves out so passionately in the halls and lawns of our universities. This makes sense.

But imagine for a moment if our young people truly lived with one another in the context of a greater cause — service to our country and to others. If the arguments about our individual rights and human dignity were debated within the context of the grand narrative of who we are as a nation. Without question, Jackie Robinson was an inherently brave and strong man. He was built for the battles he fought and won. But he was also trained, if you will, in the cauldron of national service. This fact never ceases to humble me.


The historian Ira Berlin argues in his book, The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States, that the debate over race, slavery and emancipation “speaks to the centrality of freedom in American life, which, in turn, is embedded in the very meaning of American citizenship as stated in the nation’s founding charters and in its connection to the nation’s most critical contemporary social problem: racism.”

I’ve long felt that a newly conceived, compulsory national service program could move our country onto a path of noble service and repair. With so many problems plaguing our world, at home as well as abroad, the opportunities abound for young people to be trained and steeled in the long hauls of history to remake the world in a more just and compassionate way. Schools, housing, health-care, poverty, infrastructure — great is the potential for our energetic contributions. And great is the potential impact that our young people can have on one another in learning from the experience of working and living together during these critically formative years of their lives.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” reads the epitaph on Jackie Robinson’s grave. Those words are a fitting reminder of what we can do together as a nation in the shared cause of service, justice and freedom.

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