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The evils of racism are expressed in the words we speak and the mores we establish. And both emerge from the illusion of superiority.
Jackie Robinson, as a black American, was thrown into the fire when he entered major league baseball in 1947, breaking the sport’s color barrier. The movie, “42,” named after Robinson’s jersey number, depicts the dramatic events of that year.
As “42” reminds us, black Americans who had fought for liberty in World War II returned to a United States with separate drinking fountains, restrooms and hotels. Blacks were banned from playing in major league baseball. They had their own separate black league.
That was the way it was until Branch Rickey, general manager and president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided to integrate the game.
Rickey was motivated by a moral imperative grounded in the tradition of Christian social activism that had long characterized his Methodist denomination. One reason Rickey liked Robinson was that he too was a Methodist: “He’s a Methodist,” Rickey growled to an assistant. “I’m a Methodist; God’s a Methodist.”
It’s not surprising that Rickey appealed to Robinson’s faith in persuading the fiery young athlete to “turn the other cheek,” when insulted because of his skin color. And Rickey warned the baseball talent that he, like Jesus Christ, would have a cross to bear. Rickey was looking for a man “with the guts not to fight back.”
It would take someone of strong faith to endure the afflictions of prejudice, but in so doing, that person would pave the way for a new wave of players who weren’t white.
Jackie Robinson was that person.
The battle would be brutal; the attacks against him ugly. Many of his teammates signed a petition demanding Robinson not be allowed to play on the Dodgers ball team and there are scenes in the movie that are difficult to watch, like the one where Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman crawls like a snake out of the dugout, spewing racial slurs at Robinson. Hearing the n-word repeated over and over jars our ears.
Sadly, the portrayal of Chapman’s prejudice is not far from the historical record. “Nigger, nigger, nigger,” Chapman repeatedly taunted Robinson. And that was the nicest thing he said to Robinson as he stepped into the batter’s box.
It was his Christian faith that enabled Robinson to stand his ground while not retaliating. That faith was not something he acquired in 1947. As an All-American football star at UCLA, Robinson refused to sleep in on Sunday after the exhausting Saturday game. He made time for church.
Indeed, Robinson is said to have spent every night of that memorable 1947 season on his knees in prayer.
It was his faith that kept his emotions in check so he could continue to play the game. Robinson did fight back; it was just not with his fists, it was with his performance. His play on the field helped the Dodgers to the World Series and earned Robinson the Rookie of the Year award.
But Robinson’s strength of character would result in much more than sports honors. Negro League baseball star and former Robinson teammate, Buck O’Neil, has said the civil rights movement began in 1947 when Robinson crossed the color line in baseball.
Indeed, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said of Robinson: “He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
Robinson’s stalwart faith not only empowered him in confronting the system of racism, it guided him in doing the right thing at the right time.
The issues we face today are different than they were when Robinson first stepped onto the field on April 15, 1947, or when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus on Dec. 1, 1955. But racial discrimination still exists. And prejudice is a reality.
As Americans engage in a debate about immigration reform and the rights of undocumented citizens, we would do well to look to the example of Jackie Robinson.
And coupling faith with courage, simply do the right thing.
David B. Whitlock is a Baptist minister and author of the book "Life Matters." He can be reached at email@example.com.