03/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the Shoulders of Giants -- The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Robinson

For all the great figures that have defined the civil rights battles of the past 50 years, there are two who stand above all others. Two men who were not only contemporaries, but friends and colleagues -- who drew strength from one another, and stood by one another, and lifted each other, even as they were lifting all of us. As fate would have it, like Lincoln and Washington, they celebrated birthdays within a few weeks of each other. Today is the first of those birthdays, Martin Luther King Jr. The second of those birthdays is on January 31 -- the day when Jackie Robinson would have turned 91 years old -- a man Dr. King called a pioneer and "one of my most valuable friends."

I guess it's not surprising, as a partner with Lincoln Holdings, owner of three professional sports teams, and a PGA championship golf course, that I'd find inspiration in a professional athlete. Growing up in a household with two parents who were big baseball fans, I heard a lot about Jackie Robinson before I ever heard the name Martin Luther King.

Robinson was the first African-American to play in major league baseball. He broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 -- and in many ways, helped make Brown v. Board of Education, and all the things that followed, possible.

He was a one-man revolution and he cracked the world open on April 15, 1947, when he made his major league debut at Ebbets Field before 26,000 spectators in Brooklyn, New York. He'd go on that year to win the Rookie of the Year award, and over the next decade, he'd become an All Star, a Most Valuable Player, a World Series Champion, and finally, a Hall of Famer.

Robinson, as Dr. King after him, endured it all. As a condition of becoming the first African American to play ball, he had to agree not to lash out publicly or strike back -- as he had so many times before at UCLA, where he studied, in the military, where he served as officer, and growing up. His commitment to opening doors didn't end when his playing career ended in 1956. He went on to become the first vice president of a major American corporation, and always saw his career as advancing the cause of African-American commerce and industry. He chaired the NAACP's Freedom Fund Drive, and served on its board for the next 10 years. He founded a black-owned and operated bank in Harlem, to provide loans to people in need. He established a construction company to build housing for low-income families. He remained, until his death in 1972, a symbol of character and intelligence.

In the mid 1950s, Dr. King and Robinson struck up a friendship that would last until Dr. King's dying day. There is a terrific book called First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson. It includes about 30 letters they wrote back and forth to one another as the civil rights movement grew. They shared the same dream -- opportunity for all, regardless of the color of a person's skin. They shared the same belief -- that to achieve that goal, they'd have to act, and lead. They shared the same conviction -- that the highest calling was a life dedicated to serving others.

They marched by each others' side, stood together through rally after rally, and shared more than one podium. When Dr. King was thrown in jail, it was Robinson who bailed him out -- and started a committee to defend Dr. King and to helped pay his legal costs and finance efforts to bring a million new African Americans into the movement. When Robinson got in trouble for supporting Republican candidates for office, who he believed were more committed to civil rights than their opponents, Dr. King came to his public defense, arguing that he had more than earned the right to make that judgment.

Last year, when Barack Obama was sworn in as President, Rachel Robinson, Robinson's widow, said that she only wished that Jackie could have lived to see the day, and Dr. King could have lived to see that day, for all they endured to make it happen. What I would really like to believe is that they did see it. What I'd like to believe is that somewhere -- and I think we all know where -- they are together, trading stories, sharing a laugh, and looking down from heaven on all of us right now.

Somewhere, they know what's happened since Dr. King died in 1968, and Robinson followed in 1972. They know what's been done in their name, what's happened to the movement they once led, and to the community they once embodied. I've got to think that Jackie and Martin both think it's a good thing that we have more African-Americans in leadership positions than any time in history -- from the White House to Governor's Mansions to Congress to board rooms. But I think they'd also want to know: how is it possible, six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, that we have five times as many young black men in prison as we do in college? How is it possible that in many cities, like Detroit, nearly half of all young black men are out of work? And why, in so many urban black neighborhoods, are there no parks to play in, no grocery stores to shop in, no police walking the beat, no regular pick-up of garbage -- all of which creates a cycle of blight and violence?

I bet Robinson is thinking right now: it's a good thing that so many African-American athletes and entertainers are at the center of Americans culture, in a position to be leaders and inspirations and role models.

I bet Dr. King demands to know: why have so many young athletes and actors become billboards of violent and destructive behavior, as Rev. Al Sharpton recently said? Why do actors and athletes, many of whom grew up in middle class households, feel a need to prove their worth by waving around guns rather than waving around their diplomas? Why, in my own locker room, does a bright young man of character put four guns in a teammates' locker with whom he's had a dispute, with a note that says, "pick one?" I don't think Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King turned the other cheek to violence time and time again so their heirs could embrace the gangsta life as the good life.

I've got to think that Dr. King thinks it's a good thing that we have African-American doctors and engineers and researchers entering the workforce in record numbers, able to serve as mentors and teachers to the next generation.

But I think Jackie wants to know: why don't young African-Americans know any of their names? Why do so many young people aspire to wear their pants too low, to wear their jackets too big, to use words like "cain't" and "why you ain't" and criticize those who speak proper English as "black people acting white?" When did we begin to embrace ignorance and illiteracy as a badge of honor in our community?

Dr. King and Jackie Robinson didn't open doors of opportunity so we could slam them all shut a generation later.

I think both of them are amazed by the technology around us: that we have tools to reach each other, and teach each other, and help each other in ways we never had before -- person to person, and parent to parent.

I think they're both also wondering: what's happened to parenting? What's happened to our community? More African-Americans go to church than ever before. But Jesus alone is not going to teach us love and respect and compassion. Jesus alone is not going to teach a 12 year old to respect her body, or an 18 year old to take responsibility for a child he parents. Jesus alone is not going to teach you to say please and thank you, to look a person in the eye, to live with decency and integrity. Jesus alone is not going to teach you to keep needles out of your arm, to study and read and take learning seriously. That isn't the work of Jesus -- that is the work of parents. It's time we take parenting seriously again -- to take responsibility for our own children, yes; but also work to support each other, to keep the bonds of our community strong.

I think they'd both want to ask us: what happened to the trust we had in each other? What happened to the support we gave one another and the belief we had in one another? Why is the measure of our society now how much we can diss one another, how much we can put each other down, and all that other garbage we see every night on those reality shows and music shows? Isn't there a place for integrity and humility and responsibility again? Can't we celebrate each other's success, rather than feel threatened by it?

And if our leaders aren't willing to lead, then what's wrong with us? Why can't we do it? Why can't we take to the streets again? Why can't we clean it out ourselves, to bring decency and accountability and respect back? Why can't we take it upon ourselves to make character and intelligence the standard once again, to make education a priority for our entire community?

For the past year, I've been working on The Other City, a documentary about the rate of HIV/AIDS in our nation's capital. Within eyesight of the Capitol building itself are some of the worst rates of infection -- among African Americans -- outside of sub-saharan Africa. The film will be released this year. But I keep wondering: why won't our leaders take any responsibility to make it better. And if they don't, what can I do to fill the gap?

In the last decade of his life, Robinson had a lot less patience for leaders who we worked hard to elect who chose not to lead. If he supported a Democrat, and that Democrat let him down, he'd look for somebody else to support. Sometimes, it led him to support Independents, and sometimes he supported Republicans. He got a lot of criticism for that. I did the same thing myself in an election this past fall, and got a lot of the same kind of criticism. But as he said, if our leaders are not willing to lead, we have to find other leaders. As he said time and time again, "I worked hard for my vote. And I always decide my vote by taking as careful a look as I can at the actual candidates and issues themselves, no matter what the party label."

We all know about the work that Coretta Scott King did for four decades after she lost her husband, to build on his dream, to inspire people to act, to motivate people to serve. I'm sure it comes as no surprise to learn that another person who took up the call was Rachel Robinson. In the year her husband died, she started the Jackie Robinson Foundation, to help teach character to children, while providing scholarships to create opportunity. Since it was founded in 1973, JRF has given over $43 million in scholarship assistance, to more than 1,400 students. I am proud to tell you that JRF scholars maintain a nearly 100 percent graduation rate -- more than double the national average for minority students.

On February 22, I'll have the privilege of participating in the 50th anniversary commemoration of a sit-in staged by a group of students from Virginia Union University at Thalheimer's Department Store in Richmond, Virginia. It was Richmond's first mass arrests of the civil rights movement. My message then will be the same as my message today: we need to take a page from Dr. King's generation, from Jackie Robinson's generation, from those who came before us, and put their lives and fortunes on the line to make change. And if our leaders aren't willing to lead -- then we need to do it ourselves.

In one of his most famous letters to his friend, written on June 19, 1960, Dr. King wrote: "My dear Friend Jackie. The future has vast possibilities, and I am convinced that if we will gird our courage and move on in a sense of togetherness and goodwill we will be able to crush the sagging walls of segregation by the battering rams of the forces of justice. We need many leaders to do the job. I am convinced that with the leadership of integrity, humility, and dedication to the ideals of freedom and justice, we will be able to bring into full realization the principles of our American democracy." When we look over this last year and the election of Barack Obama, many of us falsely believe that the dream of Dr. King became a reality. But, we all know that lots of work still lies ahead of us.

Now, the work falls on us. It is once again time for all of us to take up the battering rams ourselves, to crush the sagging walls of injustice that are still with us, to join our hands once again to bring about that full realization of the principle of our American democracy. It is up to you -- it is up to me -- it is up to us all to join together to make the dream a reality.

This essay is excerpted from a speech given by Sheila C. Johnson at Palm Beach Community College in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Johnson is the executive producer of The Other City, a feature-length documentary on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Washington, D.C., set to premiere this year.

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