Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers received a letter during the winter of 1954 from a man who volunteered at an orphanage in Fort Wayne, Indiana. During the course of one of his visits to the orphanage, the man wrote, he saw Jimmie, a black boy, who kept to himself.
When he asked Jimmie what was wrong, the boy said, “I wish I was white.”
Troubled by the answer, the man wrote Robinson and asked if he would write a letter of encouragement to the boy.
I found Robinson’s response while researching the book Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography, which was published a few weeks ago by Westminster John Knox Press.
When Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947, it became the most important story on race relations in the years immediately following World War II. Robinson transformed how blacks saw themselves, how whites saw blacks, and, probably, how whites saw each other and themselves.
Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, the anniversary of Robinson’s first game in the big leagues. Robinson’s contributions are often restricted to his accomplishments in baseball. In doing so, however, we underestimate his impact.
Robinson’s letter to Jimmie demonstrates the ballplayer’s racial pride at a time when Jim Crow laws dominated the South and parts of the North, when blacks were taught to be compliant and those who confronted racial bigotry could be arrested, beaten, or worse.
In Robinson’s letter, which was published in newspapers in March 1954, he told Jimmie it was understandable for him to want to be white, given the racial prejudice in the country. But, he added, he should be proud of being black in spite of the “problems before us.”
Robinson’s letter might seem a bit quaint until one realizes that it was written before the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board Education; Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man; or before the Civil Rights Movement had a name.
“I guess that is understandable for a boy your age, but not to me because I am proud to be a Negro,” Robinson wrote. “I am proud because God put us here on earth and gave us a color that is distinctive, and then put problems before us to see what would happen.”
Things were improving for black Americans, Robinson wrote, and for this to continue it was necessary for black children and adults to remain hopeful and keep their faith in God.
“We have gone a long way, Jimmie, and I am sure that God is proud as I am. And I also am sure you must realize that we have a long way to go, and boys and girls like yourself will have to help. One of these days you will realize that you, too, have a lot to be proud of, so it would be nice to start now.
“Just remember that because of some handicaps we are better off,” Robinson said, “and look in the mirror at yourself and be proud of what God gave you. I, too, have felt the pains you must feel, but I never have been ashamed of what God has given me.
“Good luck to you.”