Andy Martino, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The centennial of Jackie Robinson's birth presents the opportunity to honor one of the 20th century's great civil rights pioneers, and celebrate baseball's long-ago role in that struggle.
But it should also be an occasion to remember Robinson for what he really was: a thoughtful, nuanced and righteously angry public figure whose ideas were sharp enough that they would still be highly controversial today, if people took the time to consider them.
One of the great aspects of Robinson's true legacy is that if he were active now in public life, he would be as controversial as Colin Kaepernick, whose football career ended because he took a knee during the anthem. (And please don't waste our time by saying that his blackballing happened for any other reason.)
We're talking specifically about a passage from Robinson's 1972 autobiography, "I Never Had It Made" (and part of which Kaepernick himself tweeted out in 2018):
There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey's drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.
History has a tendency to whitewash civil rights figures like Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr., bestowing a halo that makes it easier for moderates and conservatives to lionize them. In 1968, for example, Dr. King had a disapproval rating of 75 percent, according to a Harris poll conducted at the time.
That 75 percent of America only deigned embrace King when he was safely gone and could no longer challenge racism. The same holds true for Robinson.
It's fine for every MLB player to wear Robinson's uniform number once a year, and for the league to promote its connection to him. Robinson's debut in 1947 does represent baseball's most historically significant moment.
But there is a certain irony to President Trump-supporting players donning the 42 and then supporting a wall on the Mexico border, or a travel ban from Muslim countries. (While it's true that Robinson supported Richard Nixon's presidential candidacy in 1960, he did so in part because of discomfort with what he saw as JFK's condescending attitude on race.)
Easy tweets and tributes do a disservice not only to Robinson's actual legacy, but to contemporary figures like Kaepernick who are still fighting for racial equality.
When I tweeted part of that Robinson quote this morning, the objections were predictable. Many folks asserted that the difference between Robinson and Kaepernick was context; racism in America, they claim, was much worse in 1947.
To that we say: Please ask the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, or actor Jussie Smollett, or the millions of people of living anonymously under the institutional racism of housing, education and criminal justice policies if there is reason to kneel today.
Given Robinson's quote, he'd almost certainly agree. If alive, he'd make it harder for the entire country to celebrate him, because he would still be challenging racism in America, forcing people to think about complex issues and kneeling when the anthem played at sporting events he attended.