Remembering Jackie Robinson

Article excerpt

Remembering Jackie Robinson

Peter Dreier is professor of politics and director of the Public Policy Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles.

Nineteen ninety-seven marks the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's courageous triumph over baseball's apartheid system. When Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, he was the first black player in modern baseball.

To commemorate this milestone, Major League Baseball will honor Robinson by sewing patches on all players' uniforms. This year will see a proliferation of books, TV movies, and conferences about Robinson, who has not received the respect he deserves. Today, many Americans under 30, including some African American superstars, can't even identify Robinson, much less appreciate his accomplishment.

Many consider Robinson (1919-1972) America's greatest all-around athlete. The grandson of a slave and son of a sharecropper, he was a four-sport athlete at UCLA, played professional football and then briefly in baseball's Negro Leagues. He spent his major league career (1947 to 1956) with the Brooklyn Dodgers, was chosen Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949. An outstanding baserunner with a .311 lifetime batting average, he led the Dodgers to six pennants and was elected to the Hall of Fame.

Like baseball, America is more racially integrated than it was in Robinson's day. We've seen the dismantling of legal segregation, growth of the black middle class, and a virtual end to the overt daily terror imposed on blacks. Without discounting the persistence of segregated neighborhoods, black poverty, and racial bigotry, the progress is undeniable.

Even so, American race relations seems to have reached an ideological impasse. The dominant race relations metaphors of Robinson's era--integration, the melting pot, and assimilation--were unambiguous. Progressives believed in a color-blind society. It was easy to answer, which side are you on? Today's disputes over multiculturalism, affirmative action, racial preferences, and even (in the views of some black educators and playwright August Wilson) self-segregation make the political landscape more confusing.

Robinson's legacy is caught in contemporary culture wars. He was often criticized by 1960s black nationalists for being an Uncle Tom or a symbolic token. Some of their heirs now view baseball's integration with ambivalence for its role in destroying the Negro Leagues. And a writer in the conservative National Review last year used Robinson's success to argue against government policies like affirmative action, claiming it was a "triumph of the competitive market" and that "[b]aseball owners finally realized that the more they cared about the color of people's money, the less they could afford to care about the color of their skin."

In reality, black Americans welcomed baseball's integration as much as they welcomed the end of separate drinking fountains. The demise of the Negro Leagues was a small price to pay to defeat Jim Crow. And contrary to the conservative view, the dismantling of baseball's color line was a triumph of social protest in the pre-King era, not of enlightened capitalists. As historian Jules Tygiel explains in Baseball's Great Experiment, the Negro press, civil rights groups, and progressive whites waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball that involved demonstrations, boycotts, political maneuvering, and other forms of pressure that would gain greater currency the following decade. Martin Luther King once told Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, "You'll never know what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job."

Dodger general manager Branch Rickey selected Robinson to break the sport's color barrier as much for his personal characteristics as for his baseball skill. He could have chosen other Negro League players with greater talent or name recognition, but he wanted someone who today we call a "role model. …