By Chris Murray
For the Sunday Sun and Chris Murray Report
When it comes figuring out the actual beginning of the modern Civil Rights Movement, historians will probably point to the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr as the starting point.
If the bus boycott was the first chapter in the story of knocking down racial segregation in America, Jackie Robinson erasing baseball’s color line back in 1947 was the ultimate precursor to a movement that ultimately knocked down legalized racial discrimination.
Ten years before angry white mobs shouted obscenities at the Little Rock Nine and 14 years before Bull Connor sent water hoses and dogs on young protestors in Birmingham, Ala., Robinson was a lone warrior on the front lines of an hostile war to integrate America’s national pasttime.
On the field, Robinson endured his share of virulent racial hostility from his opponents on the field and from fans in the stands. And like the young people who would participate in the lunchroom counter sit-ins, Robinson did not fight back against his tormentors. He resisted the hatred with the grace and dignity that King and others would show throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
“Jackie did it on a platform that was viewed by millions of people, he had to do it with a certain decorum, he had do it with a certain toughness, he had to endure a lot of hatred and perform at a high level,” said Jimmie Lee Solomon, Executive Vice President, Baseball Development, Major League Baseball, an interview I did with him last summer. “Dr. King did the same thing. What Dr. King went through in his 39 years is mind-boggling.”
Robinson in the midst of hostile crowds, taunts, and players sliding into second base with hard spikes, excelled on the field in what was a tumultuous rookie season. He batted .297 for the Brooklyn Dodgers and led the National League in stolen bases. Robinson won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He was also fifth in the balloting for the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award.
In fact, King himself acknowledged that Robinson fired the first blow in the fight to get America to live it up to its ideals of freedom and equality guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution: “A pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
Both during and after his playing career, Robinson toured the South speaking on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement and was one of the most requested speakers. He often told supporters that he would gladly take full citizenship rights for African-Americans over him getting into Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
One of the things that very few people know about Robinson was that he was also an advocate for Black sports writers. Back in 1989, I interviewed Mal Goode, the first African-American broadcast network news correspondent, who told me that Robinson was upset over the fact there were few Black sports writer, outside of the Black press.
While Robinson bore the brunt of those early days with the utmost of humility, his strength to not fight back ultimately took its toll on him phyisaecally. By the time, he reached the age of 53, Robinson was battling diabetes and would ultimately die of a heart attack in 1972.
Even near the end of his life, Robinson was still fighting for the integration of baseball to go even further at the point. Prior to Game 2 of the 1972, Robinson told fans that day he would like to see the day the baseball would have Black managers in the dugouts.
If there is one final irony of the year Robinson broke the color barrier, it was that he led the National League in sacrifices. On April 15, 1947, he took one for the team in a bigger way and we are a better nation for it.