Watching a television documentary some years back on the civil rights movement, with films of Southern sheriffs turning fire hoses on black citizens, my godson asked, almost incredulously, “Did that really happen?” The same question would come to mind for those of younger years — a couple of generations now — seeing the public television documentary on the life of Jackie Robinson by Ken Burns. It runs this week on UNC-TV.
Friday marks the 69th anniversary of the day when Jackie Robinson “broke the color line” in the modern era of major league baseball. He was chosen for the role by Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and singled out among many Negro Leagues players not entirely for his skills on the field but also for his steely character. Rickey knew Robinson would be pushed beyond the limits of a normal human being in facing racist fans and players, but that he would have to muster the strength to resist reacting to them. He did, and was blessed with an amazingly strong wife, Rachel. Robinson endured.
Ultimately, of course, he endured for the ages, with a Hall of Fame career in baseball and then as a civil rights activist. Some unfamiliar with his life assume he became a sage and elder statesman for baseball and civil rights. But Jackie Robinson was felled by ill health and died at 53 in 1972.
A person of such courage, who carried so many others on his shoulders and changed a game and tried to change a country, deserved long years.
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What may strike those watching the Burns film, those who were born after Robinson’s death in 1972, is the breadth and depth of racism that defined Jackie Robinson’s era. Segregated water fountains and restrooms, hotels that denied rooms to black citizens, even those in military uniforms who had served their country in World War II. Second-rate schools for black kids, the racial slurs (some from players) shouted at Jackie Robinson even after he proved himself as one of the greatest players of his time.
And what will strike those who were aware of Robinson, who knew the history of his time, and those who lived through it, is that while we may no longer have segregated water fountains and bathrooms, while hotels may be open to all, while laws have prohibited some of the “official” indignities and injustices Robinson and others endured, racial division remains a defining issue in this country.
It was not left behind when civil rights legislation passed the Congress in the 1960s. It was not left behind when African-Americans won their first seats in legislatures and Congress. And no, despite the urge to believe that the election of the nation’s first black president, 143 years after the end of the Civil War, was a triumphant, definitive moment in the history of the country, racism was not and has not been left behind.
Barack Obama may have “broken the color line” around the White House, but consider the ongoing disputes of our time and his.
South Carolina had a dust-up, still simmering in some minds, over the presence of a Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds, 150 years after the end of the Civil War. The flag represented to African-Americans the enslavement of their ancestors and all that entailed — torture, murder, families torn asunder through slave markets. The defense of the flag was: It’s history. Yes, but not a history worth glorifying.
In this state, there still are arguments over Confederate monuments such as the one prominent on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, “Silent Sam.” And demonstrations break out about public buildings named for avowed segregationists.
And everywhere Obama turns, despite some substantial successes in a revitalized economy and health care reform that has helped millions of people obtain health insurance, he faces uncivil, red-faced criticism. Does at least some of the vitriol in that criticism come in part because he is the first black president? Historians will make the call.
The call already has been made on Jackie Robinson. Vilified, threatened, banished to the back of buses, seen as a threat to the very foundation of America’s pastime if not America itself, he prevailed. The game of his and ours thrived. The country of his and ours did, too, because giants like Jackie Robinson dared to keep walking, no matter how steep the hills.
Jenkins: 919-829-4513 or firstname.lastname@example.org