Sixty years ago today, a very brave young man decided to play ball. Jackie Robinson wasn’t just any rookie first baseman, taking the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. On that day, he was the first and only Black man every to play with a major league baseball team.
Imagine that, a time when “the national pasttime” was really an exclusively white male clubhouse. African American ballplayers had to play in the Negro League in those radically segregated days. Robinson’s courageous first step from the dugout to the baseline came seven years before the Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, the legal decision that triggered the end of the “separate but equal” doctrine and culture that had governed race relations after slavery.
Some believe that without Jackie Robinson’s decisive step forward, desegregation might have come more slowly. Today Robinson’s number — 42 — will appear on the backs of baseball players on every major league team in tribute to this remarkable pioneer.
Robinson died in 1972. The Brooklyn Dodgers now play in Los Angeles. Ebbets Field is gone. But as the sad events of the last few days remind us, racism remains alive and well. In a sense, today’s tribute to Jackie Robinson comes just in time — just in time to remember that civil rights cannot be taken for granted; that genuine heroes like Jackie Robinson had to be willing to cross the line, to stand calmly and gracefully in a stadium full of hatred, such as he experienced in Philadelphia and other venues in that first year. The Rutgers Women who presented themselves so calmly and gracefully last week in the aftermath of the Imus incident stood in the shadow of Jackie Robinson, the latest symbols of our culture’s protracted struggle with race.
Ironically, this week is also the 40th anniversary of the first woman to run the Boston Marathon — illegally. Katherine Switzer took to the streets on April 19, 2007 and completed all 26.2 miles that day in spite of the attempt of a race official to push her off the course.
Hard to imagine, those times not so long ago when African Americans could not play major league baseball, when women could not run the Boston Marathon.
Then again, considering the Imus episode, perhaps it’s not so hard to imagine — in fact, to judge from the blogs and polls after the Imus situation, it seems that we still have a very long way to go to ensure that the hard-won gains of the civil rights pioneers do not dissipate in the “just get over it” prevalent attitude of many people today.
“Just Get Over It” is a code phrase for “it’s not important” or “don’t make waves.” Imagine where we’d be if Jackie Robinson’s teammates had adopted the “just get over it” attiude, or Branch Rickey the Dodger’s owner, or the Supreme Court in 1954, or Rosa Parks finding a seat on the bus, or James Meredith when he walked into Ole’ Miss, or Katherine Switzer lacing her sneakers. Thank goodness for all of the people who will never “get over it.”
Thank goodness for Jackie Robinson. His remembrance has come just in time.
Read: Michael Wilbon column in the Washington Post
Read: New York Times articles
Read: “Breaking the Truth Barrier” Oped in the New York Times
Read: Sports Illustrated articles
Read: Katherine Switzer’s account of her first Boston Marathon in the New York Times