By Yohuru Williams, Ph.D.
The defaced statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese outside the home of the Mets’ Class A Brooklyn Cyclones is an opportunity to revisit an important chapter of American history. That’s because that chapter is filled with significant overtones for the present.
After Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in the major leagues in 1947, he faced serious racial opposition. Fans, opposing players and even some of his own teammates shunned him. Throughout his career, he dealt with jeers, racial epithets, and death threats aimed at him and his family. Nevertheless, he showed tremendous poise and courage not only through his stellar performance on the field but his display of character outside the game.
His example contributed to the shifting political winds in Cold War America that ultimately brought about other important changes. Although civil rights organizations such as the NAACP had long been pressing for desegregation on all fronts, Robinson and the President and General Manager of the team, Branch Rickey, demonstrated on a national stage that integration was possible. But there were other stakeholders as well. African American and Jewish sports writers, for instance, led the way dedicating great time and energy to pushing for the full integration of the game—a fact that makes the inclusion of anti-Semitic language and symbols on the statute all the more powerful. The collective action of civil rights pioneers and activists on many fronts soon paid off. In 1954, the United States Supreme Court declared separate but equal in public education unconstitutional clearing the way for the desegregation of American schools. The following October the Dodgers won the World Series, the capstone of the ambitious experiment to integrate baseball but also a confirmation of the power and promise of diversity. Brooklyn won the championship, but America claimed the larger victory affirming a commitment to our core democratic values of freedom and democracy.
Jackie understood, however, that it was not a final victory but a work in progress. He spent the bulk of his post baseball life tackling racial inequality on and off the baseball field. Shortly before his death, he lamented the absence of Blacks in coaching and management positions in the game of baseball, at the same time fighting for fair housing, educational opportunities, and political equality for African Americans, including the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
A tireless crusader for civil rights, Jackie Robinson was no stranger to racial animosity, which he first discovered in adolescence after he and his childhood friends were denied access to the local public swimming pool. It is perhaps not surprising in the present climate that a statue of Jackie would become the target of some unfortunate person’s or persons’ misguided hate.
With the nation polarized by the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Holder v. Shelby County–gutting key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965– and the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman in the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, it may very well seem like Americans are rolling back the clock on racial equality. After all Jackie Robinson served as an ambassador for the NAACP helping to register voters and worked closely with Civil Rights leaders to push for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Moreover, he suffered abuse at the hand of racists when he first joined the Dodger’s spring training sessions in Sanford, Florida, where Zimmerman shot Martin.
What, if anything, can this history reveal to us about the present moment?
First, we would do well to remember that the statue is not of Jackie alone, but also of Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese. It celebrates the storied gesture of Reese who—in a show of solidarity, placed his arm on Jackie’s shoulder during a game before which Robinson received death threats. It was a powerful display of support and camaraderie recently brought to life in one of the more poignant scenes in Brian Helgeland’s biopic “42”.
In the statue outside of the Cyclones ballpark, Jackie and Pee Wee call forth in bronze the commitment we all must be willing to make in the flesh to stand pat against racial injustice. The moment, captured in the statue, still represents all we can be as a nation, as long as we remained committed to taking on the tough issues of diversity and equality together, unified, strong, and compassionate.
Clearly, this is no easy task. The reality is that there have been significant rollbacks in many of the gains for which Jackie and other brave Americans fought. Minority students, for example, now face increased financial difficulties in their pursuit of higher education. We desperately need spaces for dialogue about key issues of race, justice, and democracy. The proposed Jackie Robinson Museum in the city of New York will be one such place. I hope that conversation about this incident—with the legacy of Jackie Robinson, front and center; will allow us to explore the strong human bonds that unite us rather than the hateful threads that continue to divide.
At the end of the day, no amount of graffiti can smear the legacy of Jackie Robinson nor erase what Jackie and Rachel Robinson and so many other civil rights pioneers worked so hard to achieve: the possibility of a society free of racial prejudice underwritten by a just democracy. As the primary caretaker of that legacy, today the Jackie Robinson Foundation continues that tradition by combating prejudice through education.
The statue of Jackie and Peewee reminds us in the most meaningful way that it takes collective action to meet injustice, and that it is in those moments when we face the greatest peril that we must stand together for what’s right. Jackie famously said that “a life is not important except in its impact it has on other lives.” If anything positive can be drawn from this deplorable incident, it is call to take up the challenge of continuing the legacy that the statue itself depicts, by pledging to continue the work of eradicating prejudice, opening up educational opportunities, and working toward perfecting our democracy.
Dr. Yohuru Williams is Chair and Professor of History at Fairfield University and the Chief Historian at the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @yohuruwilliams.