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.


  1. Today, I’ve been writing a bit about Imus and Jackie Robinson, and so I was very interested to see the way your brought the two together.
    While I touched on the issues of racism and sexism, I spent more time focusing on the ‘culture of cruelty’ tolerates the sort of comments that Imus made and how we can and should fight back.
    The Culture of Cruelty’s Katrina Moment

  2. Welcome to Urban Semiotic, Aldon!
    Thank you for your fine article link.
    I think we are in a cruel culture. A death threat then is a death threat now. Instead of celebrating the accomplishment, we are burdened with dealing from the outbreak of hatred.

  3. The similar death threats are alarming. Have we come anywhere near where we should be in the last 60 years?

  4. That’s what I’m arguing today, Anne. We pretend, as a majority White Nation, that we have come so far in healing Race relations when, in the reality of Imus, we’ve only gone backwards into the future.

  5. It seems that way, Anne. Death Threats then and now don’t seem all that different in character or intent. It’s a grotesque fact of living.

    A quote from the Rev. Martin Luther King–
    The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.
    The absence of tension, the “negative peace” to which the Rev. King refers, is a complacent attitude toward racism. Get comfortable. Get cozy. When a co-worker tells that racist joke and everyone laughs, why not “go with the flow” and just overlook it? It was, after all, funny, wasn’t it? One does not want to be seen as an outsider, after all.
    I grew up in the 1970s in the South in a Baptist church that was full of racism. My father was a deacon. I grew up singing “Jesus love the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
    Yes, Jesus loved the little black children, until they decided to go to the white church. Until they decided to move into the neighborhood. Until they threatened to marry the white girls.
    Jackie Robinson’s fears are real to me. No, I am not an African-American, so I cannot possibly identify totally with what he went through. But there is an empathy, an understanding that comes from growing up during the Civil Rights Movement and realizing that there was something desperately wrong with the way society treated African-Americans.
    Since that time, I have left the Baptist church. I have witnessed in the years after my youth, racist attitudes that continue to prevail and thread their way through every aspect of life in the South. This sort of attitude tends to drive one toward complacency, in my opinion the worst enemy of racial equality.
    We need to keep the dialogue open. We don’t need to get comfortable and cozy with our surroundings. We need to constantly be ready to defend our viewpoint on equality.
    Let us never prefer “a negative peace,” but strive to advance the “positive peace of justice.”
    Thank you, Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King, for giving us a spirit that would not be defeated.

  7. Wowser, Donna! What a great and beautiful comment.
    I was raised in Nebraska. In Lincoln, the only Black people in town were intellectuals who worked at the university and who knew how to “fit in” with the mainstream White power — and those who played on the football team and they were idolized as “Gods that walked the earth.”
    The “ordinary Black” you might meet on the street or in a store or at the bus stop were not really around much.
    It was easy to “not be a Racist” when you lived in a homogeneous community. Later, when more minority integration began to grow into the city there were pockets of Racial conflict that usually ended up in the severe punishment of the minority interest.
    It wasn’t until later in my life in Washington, D.C. that I learned the real meaning of a ghetto and urban poor and how the Black experience in America was colored in black and blue — because I lived with the poor minorities and I saw the struggles of the community.
    I was like them — poor, wanting, hungry, hoping for a better life — but I always knew I wasn’t like them because my temporary student poverty could easily be erased the next day by moving back to Nebraska and my family and my home… while their poverty was real and curdling of spirit and hopelessly repressive.
    I thank you for sharing the hard won truths of your life. We can all serve to learn from them — especially today.

  8. Thank you for the complement.
    I would pay you one also: what you are doing with Urban Semiotic is anything but complacent. It is keeping the dialogue open. It is fighting for the values you know are the right ones.

  9. Hi Donna —
    Thanks for helping shine some light on the ongoing mission of this blog.
    If you have any topics that we should cover, please suggest them or — better yet — write them up and join us as an Author here!

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