This year marks 60 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color line and became a starter for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In that first season, he completed 12 home runs, the Dodgers won the National League, and he was selected as the Rookie of the Year. His baseball accolades are far-reaching – he was an All Star player, was the league’s MVP, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. From day one, Robinson faced racial slurs from fans, opposing teams, and even his own teammates. Many players refused to play with him and against him, but the Dodgers leadership advocated for his right to be there and his fellow players began to speak up on his behalf.
But what most people don’t know is the incredible legacy that Jackie Robinson left to the Civil Rights Movement. In 1942, five years before he first stepped onto that baseball field in the Dodgers uniform, Robinson was drafted and sent to Fort Riley, Kansas. Robinson finished his Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas – and it was there on a summer day in 1944 that Robinson refused to move to the back of an Army bus upon request by the bus driver. Military police took him into custody, he was court-martialed, and charged with multiple false offences. He was eventually acquitted, the proceedings prevented him from going overseas and he was never in combat.
Robinson went on to serve as the first black analyst on ABC’s telecasts, he was the VP at Chock Full o’Nuts, served on the board of NAACP, founded the Freedom National Bank, and established the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for low-income families. Twenty years ago, the league officially retired his number – 42 – across all teams, with the exception of Jackie Robinson Day, when every player on every team wears the treasured #42.
In researching a bit more about the incredible #42, I came across a dozen communications with various Presidents and White House staff (you can view them here). Through telegrams and letters, Robinson communicated with various Presidents, and supported both political parties at one time or another. Reading these communications motivated me to be a more engaged citizen myself – if he could find the time, I can make the time. And it made me rethink how we engage with our scholars and teach them how to be part of a broader community. How do we teach our students to become global citizens? How do we encourage them to write their own letters? How do we foster their own interests in politics?
For me, today, it means leading by example. I’ll be writing my congresswoman and senators this weekend.