Jackie Robinson Day is Every Day
Jackie Robinson changed the face of America forever, with his contributions on the field and off.
Baseball is inextricably tied to the American narrative. So is race.
There is no more unassailable voice for advancing the cause of equality in America than that of Jack Roosevelt Robinson.
It is an iconic image in the American storybook; number 42 of the Dodgers, one foot out of the dugout, ready to take field for the first time at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field on Major League Baseball’s opening day in 1947. That moment, when Jackie Robinson made his unmistakable pigeon-toed sojourn toward first base with his eight white Dodger teammates changed the racial dynamics of America. It may very well have been a springboard to the modern civil rights movement. . Baseball’s opening day, a tradition since Ulysses S. Grant was President, finally began to reflect the aspirations and talents of all its citizens. Grant fought a war ostensibly tied that very notion — freedom of aspiration for those once in bondage, one which failed in its mission. Little black children could now rest their head upon their pillow dreaming they would one day grow up to be Jackie Robinson. That moment more than any other, renders baseball our national pastime.
However, we often freeze the image of Jackie Robinson in that moment. That iconic piece of history was a beginning not a culmination.
The sacrifice and pain that Jackie Robinson endured so that the great American pastime could present the best talent of all creeds on the diamond, as does it today, cements his legacy as a civil rights pioneer. Robinson was not unaware his journey allowed little black boys and girls to dream of their own. Baseball was a living, that was the mission he relished. Baseball celebrates his legacy annually. His impact was such that no player will ever again don the iconic number 42, but for the purpose of celebrating his singular legacy. It is honored bestowed solely upon him. There have been better players than Jackie Robinson, whose Hall-of-Fame plaque makes no mention of his place in history, but there was never one whose impact was greater.
Jackie Robinson will forever be known for desegregating baseball. Yet, his greatest contributions might have come after he hung up his cleats. He marched in lockstep with Dr. King. Robinson not only leveraged his celebrity as a platform to promote racial justice, he was an tireless and indispensable political activist and informed advocate for equality. He used his mind, his wallet and his voice and his pen.
Robinson became the first African-American Vice President at a major American company when he was hired at Chock Full o’ Nuts as VP of Personnel. Robinson left that position to dedicate himself for public service. He chaired the Freedom Fund at the NAACP. He penned two weekly columns in which he discussed issues of race in America at length. Letters fly back-and-forth between Robinson and sitting Presidents, civil rights leaders, athletes and ordinary citizens alike. His columns and letters were sharp, pointed, and without pretense. Jackie Robinson was his own man.
Though he did not have a Twitter account or an Instagram feed, like many athletes today, Robinson used his platform to fight for social justice. He was a sharp critic of the endemic racism that he felt pervaded America.
After he left the field, he had one goal in mind:
“The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.”
In 1972 Jackie Robinson said he could not stand for the national anthem and was reticent to salute the flag.
Almost fifty years after his untimely death, despite the personal sacrifice he made both as an athlete and activist, the issue of racial inequality has again come to the fore.
“Robinson’s life and legacy matter today — a lot,” explains Michael G. Long, who edited First Class Citizenship, an anthology of Robinson’s letters.
“Robinson was troubled by violence in the civil rights movement, he often warned about it and he believed it would lead to increased power among the right wing and so he warned about violence — about what we were seeing today,” explains Dr. Long.
“Robinson believed that violent protest was suicidal; they would lead to greater repression. He believed that non-violent protests were most effective… They helped build alliances with people who normally wouldn’t protest. They built alliances especially with political leaders.”
Ronald Reagan once said that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him. Jackie Robinson, an impassioned political player, was for a time an avowed Republican. His barometer for measuring a candidate was race. Often Robinson found himself a player without a team.
‘What drove his alignment with either Republicans or Democrats was the criterion of their commitment to civil rights and he would always choose the candidate that he believed would be advance civil rights.”
He campaigned for Nixon in 1960, but quickly came to regret it. In 1964, he joined Republicans for Johnson, after Barry Goldwater became the nominee. He was among Nelson Rockefeller’s closest advisors. He worked on two presidential campaigns, and served as his Director of Community Affairs while Rockefeller was Governor of New York, but resigned when Nixon was the Republican nominee in 1968.
Under President Trump there has been a mass exodus within Republican party ranks, much of it over issues of division and racial injustice.
In 1972, Robinson writes to Richard Nixon, “I want so much to be part of and to love this nation as I once did, I hope you will take another look at where we are going and be the president who leads the nation to accept difficult but necessary action rather than one who fosters division.”
Robinson died that year. Nixon resigned as President. Gerald Ford replaced him. His Vice President was Nelson Rockefeller.
Robinson understood that responding to injustice was an act of patriotism. Let us not forget that before Robinson signed with the Dodgers, he was almost court-martialed for protesting segregation and mistreatment as a black officer while serving. He also detested anti-Semitism and bigotry of all kinds, including when it came from people of color.
Robinson’s message was patently his own. Later in his life, some fans recoiled at the once graceful Robinson’s gravelly militancy, while black separatists called him a traitor to his race. He didn’t care.
“Robinson wasn’t just about protest he was about politics and the importance of voting,” notes Long. “For Robinson black power was a matter of the ballot and the buck. It was about voting rights it was securing political office and black power is also about economic rights and advancement for black people.”
Jackie Robinson was about civil discourse, civil disobedience and civil rights, but more than that he was about opening up the American dream for all, promoting black enterprise and capitalism and avowed that when people of color had an equal piece of the proverbial pie this country would be a better place. That America didn’t get there in his lifetime greatly embittered him.
“In my opinion being a liberal isn’t worth a quarter unless you demonstrate it in addition to making speeches about it,” Robinson once wrote in a column.
He would likely be proud that baseball protégés of all colors have used their platform to protest injustice and help foment a national reckoning. Robinson encouraged other athletes to use their platform to advance the cause of justice. When baseball players take a knee, they stand on his shoulders.
“Robinson really was an early pioneer of the Black Lives Matter movement. He helped pave the way for a movement like that to emerge,” explains Dr. Long. “Robinson like the Black Lives Matter movement was very concerned about police brutality and about police negligence about the black community…Robinson had no tolerance for black athletes who didn’t get involved in black politics and civil rights and that trajectory continues.”
Robinson and Branch Rickey coming together to better this country is a seminal page in the American storybook. Robinson’s heroism is an example of what America can be, but the racial inequality he spoke out against is likewise a reminder of what America can also be.
The current national reckoning on racial injustice is what Jackie Robinson spent his life fighting for. The President’s response is why he felt it a necessity to never stop fighting.
Due to COVID-19, instead of April 15, the day on which he made his debut Jackie Robinson Day was celebrated on August 28, 2020. August 28, 1945 was they day Rickey and Robinson had their fateful meeting. Eighteen years later, on August 28, 1963 the Robinson family was at the Lincoln Memorial marching for jobs and freedom. Robinson made kids dream. On that day Dr. King reminded them why.
May every day be a Jackie Robinson Day.
“Beautiful things and bad things have happened to me. I have been reinforced in some of my early convictions. I have changed my mind about others. I have been called blessed by some people of both races and damned by others of both races. I have been labeled militant, radical conservative and even Uncle Tom. I have not gotten all of life I wished but who does? I owe a great deal to baseball, but I gave a great deal to the game. Baseball has made magnificent strides and set the tempo for other facets of our society to do the same…but it is still quite imperfect. I love baseball because I do, I will continue to criticize it. I love this country. I, the grandson of slave, son of a sharecropper made it to the Hall of Fame.
With the land, I’ve been told, Americans inherit the legacy of free speech, free expression, of right to dissent. I always intend to indulge that freedom.
What they call arrogant I call confidence. What they call argumentative I categorize as articulate. What they label temperamental I cite as human.”
— Jackie Robinson, 1970.