In the two-part Ken Burns’ documentary, “Jackie Robinson”, broadcast this past week on PBS television, we are immediately hooked by the legendary baseball player’s opening statement: “If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards and citations, and a child of mine came into that room and asked what I had done in defense of black people and decent whites fighting for freedom, and I had to tell that child that I had kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure at the whole business of living.”
In raw archival footage and interviews we see Jackie Robinson’s historic breaking of the major league baseball color barrier on April 15, 1947 when he steps out onto Ebbetts Field to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers (now the LA Dodgers) with fury and racist slurs thrown at him from the stands and from his fellow team members. An outspoken and confident man, Robinson is nonetheless advised by the team’s manager (Branch Rickey) to remain non-confrontational in the face of violent assaults both physical and verbal, and to seek solace in the privacy of his family life. The portrait of Jackie Robinson reveals a more complex, vulnerable, and astonishingly heroic man both tragic and pioneering. The viewer has no doubt of the immense difficulty for Robinson to remain silent in the face of such brutality and injustice.
What Burns contributes to our knowledge of this shameful period of US history is Robinson’s equally courageous life after baseball: his contributions to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Jackie Robinson was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides,” and enlisted his participation in some of the organized civil rights marches.
After Robinson’s baseball career ended, he became a newspaper columnist on race relations, a political advocate for civil rights, and a successful executive for a famous coffee company (Chockful o’Nuts) as well as the founder of a bank for African Americans. This post-baseball career, not as well-known to many of us, in some ways even transcends his athletic achievements.
One of the more remarkable elements of the “Jackie Robinson” miniseries, is Robinson’s luminescent 93-year old widow Rachel, a sensitive, highly intelligent and caring woman who seemed to buffer her husband from the most insidious pressures on him and his family. This documentary is as much Rachel’s story as it is Jackie’s, because she is our witness to what Jackie felt and believed but could not give voice to in those early years of his baseball career. She describes in unsparing words how her husband collapsed in her arms from a fatal heart attack after years of increasing debilitation from diabetes. He was 53 years old.
Little known facts about Robinson are explained; 1) why he was an early supporter of Nixon who seemed to be more supportive of civil rights than JFK; 2) why his support for Republican candidates seemed the right direction for African Americans after the military was integrated and Brown vs. Board of Education was decided; 3) his reaction to Malcom X and others calling him an Uncle Tom.
If the black press hadn’t strongly advocated over the years for civil rights, and if political pressure outside baseball hadn’t coalesced at this time due in part to Jackie Robinson, gains in civil rights would not have happened. It’s this sequence of historically inconvenient truths that “Jackie Robinson” makes us confront.
This year, the city of Philadelphia officially apologized for the racist taunts that members of the Phillies baseball team rained on Jackie Robinson when the Dodgers played them [almost seventy years after the game in question].