More Than A Man

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On March 2nd, Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation's highest civilian honor, for breaking baseball's color barrier back in 1947. His widow, Rachel Robinson was on hand to accept the award from President Bush in a ceremony held in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol with the Commissioner of Major League Baseball and members of both houses looking on.
When I was a kid, I always dreamed of being a baseball player. And although Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron might have been bigger stars, for some reason Jackie Robinson always remained my role model. Maybe it was the fact that he lived right in the neighborhood, and that he'd let my father take a Polaroid picture of me with him.

More likely, it was a result of my sensing, on a very deep level, that he had made a tremendous sacrifice for his people in order to end the sport's strictly-enforced exclusion of African Americans. For he had promised Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey that he would endure, without retaliation, all the hostility and humiliation he was certain to encounter in the form of slurs, heckling, taunts, spitting, hate mail, and death and kidnapping threats against his family. When Rickey recruited Robinson, they shared this famous exchange. Rickey: "I know you're a good ballplayer. What I don't know is whether you have the guts." Robinson: "Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?" Rickey responded: "Robinson, I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."

It is important to note that playing the pacifist had not come naturally to Jackie. In fact, he had been court-martialed while in the Army for refusing to ride in the back of the bus as then required of all "COLORED" soldiers. So, it was with the weight of African American potential on his shoulders, that he embarked, solo, on the social experiment which would not only change the face of sports but the face of America's color-coded cultural landscape forever.

Jackie Robinson's success in 1947 signaled the beginning of the end for the Jim Crow system of segregation. Few remember that America's Armed Forces were only integrated a year later, in 1948, and that it took the Supreme Court another seven to declare separate but equal unconstitutional in the landmark decision of Brown vs. Board of Education. 

Accepting the role of martyr would take a considerable toll on Jackie’s health, leading to an early demise. But till the day he died, he set an admirable example, living by a simple, dignified code. "I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me,� he once said, making a typical noble gesture. “All I ask is that you respect me as a human being."

If only his grandfather, born a slave, had lived long enough to appreciate the historic inroads his grandson had achieved on behalf of so many in a land that had long rationalized discrimination on the basis of color alone. I know that I, for one, benefited immeasurably from his having paved the way, and thus remain forever indebted to this great American.
Jack Robinson, in my life.

Black Star columnist Lloyd Kam Williams, Jr. is a member of the NJ, NY, CT, PA, MA & US Supreme Court bars. For more reports please click on "subscribe" on the homepage for the newsstand edition of the newspaper or call 212-481-7745


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