Beyond 42: Jackie Robinson and the Quest for Racial Justice

Ferguson is a little over a three and half-hours drive from Kansas City, where Jackie Robinson began his baseball career; he started in the Negro Leagues as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs. October 24, 2014 marks the 42nd anniversary of Robinson's death -- significant because that is the number that Robinson wore.
10/24/2014 04:36 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014
Jerseys with Jackie Robinson's No. 42 hang in the Los Angeles Dodgers' locker room before a baseball game between the Dodgers
Jerseys with Jackie Robinson's No. 42 hang in the Los Angeles Dodgers' locker room before a baseball game between the Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants on Tuesday, April 15, 2014, in San Francisco. Players from both teams will be wearing the number for Jackie Robinson Day. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

When the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants take the field Friday night for Game 3 of the World Series, it is unlikely that viewers will be thinking of Jackie Robinson or Ferguson, Missouri. Yet, Ferguson is a little over a three and half-hours drive from Kansas City, where Jackie Robinson began his baseball career; he started in the Negro Leagues as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs. October 24, 2014 marks the 42nd anniversary of Robinson's death -- significant because that is the number that Robinson wore. It is a number that has been universally retired throughout baseball in tribute to the way he helped to transform the game and the nation.

Just nine days before his death, on October 15, 1972, Robinson himself attended a World Series game that included a ceremony to honor the then 25th Anniversary of his historic accomplishment. In what proved to be his final public engagement, Robinson pressed baseball officials to do more to foster integration: "I'd like to live to see a black manager," he noted in his televised remarks, "I'd like to live to see the day when there's a black man coaching at third base."

Today some of those dreams have been realized, even as Black representation in baseball as a whole continues to plummet. According to a 2014 report, the percentage of black players has dropped to its lowest number since integration, standing at 8.3% down from 26% in 1979. Last month, one of those African Americans, Seattle Mariners Manager Lloyd McClendon, linked the decline in black participation with fewer opportunities for African Americans to pick up the game in financially strapped and racially stratified inner cities. Clearly as baseball legend Hank Aaron observed in May of 2013, "Jackie certainly would be disappointed in the way things are today."

This observation extends beyond baseball when once considers the nation's failure to tackle other racial and economic disparities that were important to Robinson. The "historical" Jack Robinson was a man who cared far more deeply about social justice than many realize and spent the better part of his post-baseball life working toward achieving equality for all people. Given where we find ourselves at this moment in the nation's history, Robinson's legacy in these arenas should speak as powerfully to us as his record of achievement on the baseball diamond. Although Robinson can speak to us across time on a variety of issues, I would like to focus on two: education and police community relations that continue to haunt us.

Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia but grew up in Pasadena, California. His mother instilled in him a deep respect for the value of education -- a respect that segregation helped to erode. Struggling to meet the financial burden of paying for his education and despite his athletic prowess, Robinson left UCLA shorty before completing his studies. In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson recalled leaving because "I was convinced that no amount of education would help a black man get a job. I felt like I was living in an academic and athletic dream world."

Nevertheless, Robinson remained a staunch supporter of ensuring the broadest accesses to education for all throughout his life. It is unlikely that he would be happy with the present state of affairs in the United States and efforts to undercut funding for public schools. In spite of the rhetoric of corporate education reformers, our nation's schools remain largely segregated. A persistent achievement gap, especially on high stakes standardized tests, mocks so-called reformers desire to achieve true equity.

The disillusionment Robinson experienced was fueled partially by the knowledge that in spite of earning a college degree, very little opportunity awaited him as a person of color. It is the same disillusionment many students presently face in a climate where high stakes testing and cuts to funding for music and the arts, not to mention vocational training, erode the value of a high school diploma. Perhaps, more importantly, given Robinson's experience, high stakes testing may cut access to universities for students of color who continue to struggle on such standardized measures of achievement and who are not gifted athletes eligible for athletic scholarships. Students may also see less value in completing school when the vast majority of jobs since the economic recovery have emerged in low wage sectors for positions in which neither a high school nor college diploma is necessary or required.

It is equally important to acknowledge Jackie Robinson's view of the problem of police community relations. Although considered primarily a sports hero, Robinson participated in the Civil Rights Movement. Columns he wrote for several newspapers, including the Amsterdam News, regularly weighed in on issues of race and criminal justice. Shortly before a wave of urban unrest swept Harlem over the killing of an unarmed 15-year-old named James Powell by a police lieutenant in July of 1964 Robinson published a piece, "Watch That Brutality" in which he cautioned city officials that police brutality would "not be tolerated by the Negro and Puerto Rican people of New York City." Robinson challenged officials' record of excessive force, "There has been too much of it and unless it is seriously curtailed, there can be serious and crucial times ahead for the city."

Those words ring true today as protesters continue to demonstrate on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to demand justice in the murder of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and the myriad social, economic, and political factors that continue to contribute to racial inequality in America.

As many of us enjoy the grand spectacle of athletic competition on display at the World Series we would do well to remember that America's pastime is not invitation to close our eyes to this injustice and inequality but renew our resolve to fight it, as Jackie Robinson did, in the hopes of helping our nation reach its highest moral and democratic potential.