Today is the 60th anniversary when Jack Roosevelt Robinson — Jackie Robinson — became the first Black player to take the field in a Major League Baseball uniform. He played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Few know that in 1941 Jackie Robinson was the first athlete in the history of UCLA — of any color — to letter in four sports: Baseball, Football, Basketball and Track. There are perils when you are a pioneer and a barrier-breaker and — in the light of our Don Imus Conversations — we cannot deny how the past haunts us with a similar hatred that still chases us today as witnessed in this letter sent to Jackie Robinson on May 20, 1951:
Can you imagine what sort of degenerate mind it takes to send a death threat letter like that to Jackie Robinson? Is that letter any different than the email Death Threats some Don Imus fans sent to the Rutgers women’s basketball team and Al Sharpton this week? How can we, as a nation, tolerate this kind of ongoing, pernicious, Hate Speech that permeates the baffling core of our society?
Death Threats are not protected speech. Death Threats are cudgels used to silence people who speak the truth or who know where the truth can be found. We should be celebrating the accomplishments of Jackie Robinson today
— but somehow a pall of sadness lingers on us — perhaps we are a bit bitter in the revelation of our naiveté that we have been shocked so far back into our Racist past as a nation this week and as those cogent among us are forced to confess we haven’t really come very far at all.
Jackie Robinson was an icon and a touchstone for both admiration and hatred and it tore him up on the inside despite his calm facade. He appeared on the scene eight years before Rosa Parks and nearly a decade before anyone knew Martin Luther King, Jr. on a national level. Jackie was the first. He was alone. He was lonesome. You can feel his fury on the page in this April 20, 1972 letter to the White House warning about the Rage of Race in America:
At the time he wrote that letter, Jackie was almost blind, he walked with a cane and he was dealing with the effects of several heart attacks, high blood pressure and diabetes. At 53, his hair has turned white. Six months later he was dead. When we reflect back on the life of Jack Roosevelt Robinson, we cannot simply celebrate his accomplishments and our joy in hoping to honor him.
We must also take the full measure of the man behind the monument. We must become sensitive to the individual dangers of stepping forward to cross lines and to batter down hatred in the name of an idealized ideal. Some of us are too timid to sacrifice our minds and bodies for the greater good. Jackie Robinson was unbowed, but broken, by the process and that is the threat to any person who becomes an icon: The rest of us forget the being.
In the shining, selfless, example of Jackie Robinson’s deeds, we must admit he not only donated his mind and body to the all of us — he sacrificed his spirit as well — and the willing acquiescence of spirit creates a deep debt in the national ethereal self that few of us can even begin to imagine, let alone repay.