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Jackie Robinson on Courage -- and Slugging a Nazi

08/19/2013 03:15 pm 15:15:32 | Updated Oct 19, 2013

The Brooklyn Cyclones, the Single-A affiliate of the New York Mets, will soon rededicate the Jackie Robinson/Pee Wee Reese statue recently defaced outside their ballpark on historic Coney Island. Now removed from the statue, the graffiti included racist and anti-Semitic messages as well as an image of a swastika. It was not the first time a swastika appeared in the story of Jackie Robinson.

In the summer of 1964 Robinson was enjoying his role as guest of honor at an NAACP youth banquet when a white man jumped on the dais and began waving a swastika and shouting hate-filled words about "sending all the n-----s back to Africa." Robinson speculated the man was part of a group of "self-styled American Nazis" who had been picketing the hotel as guests arrived for the banquet.

"I will be very honest with you," Robinson wrote a few days later. "I am not nonviolent in such circumstances. I felt my anger rising within me at the thought of some racist trying to create confusion ... Not only was my anger rising, but I found that I was rising with every intention of letting this unexpected visitor have a good swift jab in the head."

A great hitter in his heyday, Robinson was no doubt still strong enough to knock out the Nazi with a solid right. But lucky for the fool, whose name is nowhere in the annals off history, some of the nonviolent NAACP youths quickly surrounded him and hustled him out of the building just before Robinson had a chance to launch his attack.

In retrospect Robinson said the NAACP youths were wiser than he was, and that the "future of America is in good hands as long as we have fine young people ... who have the courage to go after it and the great depth of soul to carry themselves in a manner which can only make appreciative people proud."

"Courage" and "great depth of soul": That was high praise from the Hall-of-Famer who, not quite twenty years earlier, had courageously, and nonviolently, shattered the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

Robinson typically reserved such praise, especially use of the word "courage," for the truly exceptional people in his life -- like Pee Wee Reese.

In 1962 Robinson called Reese a man of "courage" in a newspaper column he penned about the incident now memorialized by the statue outside the Cyclones stadium.

Cranky historians like to bicker about the details of the incident, but Robinson wrote, without qualification, that "at the very beginning" of his major league career, Pee Wee Reese, Kentucky native and starting shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers, did "a simple and significant thing" during a game in Boston. As the opposing players were openly ridiculing Reese for accepting Robinson as a teammate and friend -- one of them shouted "that Reese's 'grandpappy' would cut off his mint julep when he learned his grandson was socializing with a Negro" -- Reese walked over to Robinson and put his arm around Jackie's shoulder. As Robinson recalled the moment:

"We talked for a minute. Neither one of us, to this day, remembers what we were talking about. We do know what we were saying to the agitators and to the world. We were saying that we were teammates -- white man from the South and Negro from California by way of Georgia. We were saying we were there to play ball and to beat hell out of Boston. We were saying that all the sneers meant nothing."

In case we missed his point, Robinson twice wrote that Reese was a man of "courage" -- the same word he would later use to describe the NAACP youths.

That makes sense, doesn't it? If courage is the moral backbone to do what is right, good, or fitting in the face of fear, uncertainty, or danger, what better example than a Southern shortstop who faced the collapse of his family business back in Kentucky for befriending a black teammate? Or youthful civil rights activists who used the weapon of nonviolence to confront the violence of American Nazism? Or a young black man who endured death threats -- death threats -- when he took the field for the Dodgers in 1947?

And what could be less courageous -- more gutless -- than spewing racist comments while sitting in a dugout with an escape tunnel? Or shouting racist remarks to young civil rights activists dedicated to nonviolent social change? Or, yes, painting racist graffiti on an unguarded statue in the middle of the night?

What could be less courageous than all that?

Well, maybe one thing -- not giving a damn. The philosopher Cornel West argues, with inspiration from Abraham Heschel, that the opposite of courage is not simply cowardice but also indifference -- indifference to evil.

And hatred.

So I have to ask: Do you care?

Do you care about the defaced statue of Robinson and Reese? Is the incident merely an insignificant "blip" in a post-racial country? Does the presidency of Barack Obama mean that this incident is "nothing"? Or does it point to something more ominous? Do you care about who did it? Should we slug them? Or escort them out of the park? Do you care about the rededication of the statue? Is it a sufficient reply to a hate crime? Or does the virtue of courage call for us to do more? For politicians to do something? Anything?

As we head towards the rededication, I care to hear your thoughts.