Everyone Takes the Wrong Lesson From Jackie Robinson

His feat wasn’t proving that Black athletes and white athletes were equals. It was that white people could overcome their collective fear of us.

On the first day of June, L.A. protesters took to the streets once more to use their bodies to decry the wrongful death of George Floyd and the persistence of police brutality in America. The protesters were subsequently arrested by the LAPD and corralled in the parking lot of UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium. If you’re the least bit aware of sports history — or American history — you’ll immediately recognize the severity of this insult. 

Whether the LAPD did so out of ignorance or willful intent doesn’t really matter. It was grossly offensive either way: Peaceful protesters of racial violence were apprehended by police in a space named after a Black man who fought with dignity for the civil rights of his people, as well as for the soul of this nation.

Robinson’s name, of course, comes up often in another context these days, too. That is, as we battle against a new generation of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, there is much debate about what tactics are appropriate to use. Like MLK, social moderates love to point to Robinson as the ideal example. He fought with honor to earn the respect of his oppressors, they like to say. Even police draw upon Robinson’s legacy for copaganda.

If you let them tell it, Robinson was basically MLK in baseball cleats. This, however, is a gross oversimplification. Beyond the fact that Robinson worked for decades with Dr. King, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the NAACP and was court martialed in the military for refusing to sit in the back of a bus (a decade before Rosa Parks did the same), it misunderstands and misstates what Robinson did when he obliterated baseball’s color line in 1947. 

When the Brooklyn Dodgers chose to make him the first Black ballplayer in the majors, it wasn’t to prove that Black athletes were equal to white athletes. Branch Rickey, the man who signed Robinson with the express intent to desegregate baseball, already knew that Black athletes were equal. Robinson knew it. Black people knew it. That part of the equation was never in question. What Robinson did by crossing the color line was to show white people that they could be equal to Black people. That they could play together. That they could overcome their collective fear. 

In other words, Robinson didn’t join professional baseball; professional baseball — and by extension America — joined Robinson. White America rose to the level of fearlessness that he exhibited. Robinson helped free white people from their fears. And he did so to liberate Black people.

The struggle to get there was immense — that part of the legend is certainly true. Consider this anecdote about a game against the Philadelphia Phillies, from his autobiography, I Never Had It Made:

“For one wild and rage-crazed minute I thought, To hell with Mr. Rickey’s ‘noble experiment.’ It’s clear it won’t succeed. I have made every effort to work hard, to get myself into shape. My best is not enough for them. I thought what a glorious, cleansing thing it would be to let go. To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create. I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all. I’d never become a sports star. But my son could tell his son someday what his daddy could have been if he hadn’t been too much of a man. 

Then, I thought of Mr. Rickey — how his family and friends had begged him not to fight for me and my people. I thought of all his predictions, which had come true. Mr. Rickey had come to a crossroads and made a lonely decision. I was at a crossroads. I would make mine. I would stay.”

Robinson was willing to swallow decades of bile and hate, death threats and slurs, in order to prove that white people were willing to admit what Black people already knew: We are all equal. He helped white people transform their humanity. It’s a fight Black people carry on to this day.

While I may disagree with Robinson’s stance on Muhammad Ali opposing the draft, or his support of Nixon over Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, it doesn’t surprise me that an Army veteran would be concerned about what message Ali was sending to Black soldiers overseas. I also understand why Robinson didn’t trust Kennedy, who, when the two men met, refused to look Robinson in the eye as the politician confessed he didn’t know much about Black people since he was from New England.

I don’t need to always agree with Jackie Robinson anyway. It’s important, though, that everyone knows that Robinson believed that America was his country, which helped convince me that it’s my country, too. “It isn’t a perfect America and it isn’t run right,” he once said, “but it still belongs to us. As my friend the Reverend Jesse Jackson says, ‘It ain’t our government, but it’s our country.’”

It’s quite possible that Robinson believed in America more than just about anyone else in the history of this nation — and certainly more American than the LAPD.