We can talk about his barrier-shattering accomplishment on the baseball field on April 15, 1947 — 65 years ago today. Crossing the color-wall of “America’s Favorite Past-time” with confidence and integrity, Robinson became the first Black American to play in a Major League Baseball game when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers on the field. He eventually became the first Black American television analyst in Major League Baseball.
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We can touch on the fact that his #42 jersey was retired in 1997 and that April 15 was designated “Jackie Robinson Day” by the MLB in 2004.
We can even discuss his storied matriculation through the University of California, Los Angeles, where he became the university’s first student to win varsity letters in four sports: football, basketball, track, and baseball.
It would also be interesting to shed light on his brief time in Hawaii with the semi-professional Honolulu Bears in 1941, before he was forced to enter World War II.
But his contributions to the world of sports — as larger-than-life and transcendent as they unequivocally are — dwell parallel to the passionate civil rights advocacy that defined his life.
Married for 26 years, his widow, Rachel Robinson, has always made it clear that baseball was but a facet of her husband’s life:
To the average man in the average American community, Jackie Robinson was just what the sports pages said he was, no more, no less. He was the first Negro to play baseball in the major leagues. Everybody knew that. . . . In remembering him, I tend to de-emphasize him as a ball player and emphasize him as an informal civil rights leader. That’s the part that drops out, that people forget.”
Born in Cairo, Georgia on January 31, 1919, young Jackie was the youngest of 5 children raised in financial poverty by a single mother. After excelling in sports throughout high school and college, he proved during WWII that in spite of the malicious racism running rampant in the United States, he would not let this country define his manhood. Refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus during training camp, he was arrested and court martialed — over a decade before Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat to a White person would spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
In fact, three years before that fateful day in 1955 that introduced the nation to a young Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., Robinson was calling out the Yankees organization for not having any Black players on their team 5 years after he joined the Dodgers.
Retiring from professional baseball in 1956, Robinson never stopped breaking barriers. Feeling that it was of the utmost importance that Black people have control of their own money, Robinson worked diligently as an executive for the Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee company and restaurant chain to realize another dream — the financial security of Black Americans. That vision manifested into the Freedom National Bank in Harlem and before it’s eventual closing, it was the largest Black-owned and operated bank in New York state.
Not stopping there, he joined and became a pivotal figure in the NAACP, dedicated himself to developing housing construction and also penned columns for the Amstersdam News and The New York Post.
Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously from President Ronald Reagan in 1984, these two honors serve as iconography of a multi-faceted life of complexity, unwavering skill, truthfulness and fearlessness.
From that first defiant stance on a military bus on July 6, 1944, to the time he was forced to flee Sanford, Florida in 1946 due to racist threats — a razor-sharp depiction of a town that serves as the bloodied landscape of Trayvon Martin‘s murder – to his death on October 24, 1972 of a heart attack, Robinson has been a beacon of light in the Civil Rights Movement. His sheer tenacity and refusal to accept invisible boundaries continues to illuminate the path of men and women walking proudly in his footsteps.