April 15 is seared into the minds of American taxpayers. This deadline date for filing one’s yearly tax return causes dread for millions of taxpayers, especially for those who wait until the deadline to fill out their returns. However, for all of us, simply seeing the date is a reminder of our national obligation.
The date, April 15, 1947, is also remembered by many of us, although the memory is fading fast. In fact, the media scarcely noted that date last month. Yet it forever changed and impacted the social fabric of American life.
Sixty-five years ago, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player to walk onto a Major League playing field, as first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Today, of course, the team is the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The array of players, the nation and our “favorite pastime” have changed so much that Robinson’s achievement is now largely forgotten. For most Americans, the only Major League baseball they have ever known is one with players of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, competing together in this still-popular national sport.
That’s what time and change does.
I remember as a young associate pastor leading a discussion with the youth group in my first appointment after graduating from seminary. The topic that day was the response of students, other citizens and politicians to the effort of James Meredith to enroll and become the first black student at the University of Mississippi. A young person in our group said something to the effect of, “If white people do not want us in their schools, we should not force ourselves in places where we are not wanted.” That, of course, was in 1963.
My immediate response was, “Well, what would baseball look like today if Jackie Robinson had taken that position?” To which the young lady responded, “Who is Jackie Robinson?”
I learned more than one lesson that day. First, there’s something called generational memory. I also learned that when change comes, the past can be too quickly forgotten.
Jackie Robinson and all he represented 65 years ago still loom large in my storehouse of memories. While at the time I did not entirely comprehend the historical significance, I was drawn into the street celebrations in my Harlem neighborhood. I saw tears roll down the cheeks of grown men, again not fully understanding. Such emotions were felt across the country.
Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey, a courageous white man (and a Methodist), had defied critics and warnings, signing an even more courageous black man, Robinson (also a Methodist), to play for the Dodgers. On that day, Robinson dared to take the ball field, amid some cheers but mostly boos and racial epithets. Even his teammates had signed a petition indicating they would not play with him.
There is often a high price to be paid for being the “first.”
In fact, “Mr. Rickey,” as he was affectionately called, had a three-hour conversation with Jackie Robinson as he was considering putting him under contract. He knew that Robinson, as the first black player in an otherwise all-white national sport, would face the harsh racial abuse of fans and players alike. He would be entering a world marked “White Only.” There were those who psychologically and emotionally simply could not conceive that this “sacred space” could be so “violated.” For Robinson, it would be a time of deep ugliness.
During their conversation Rickey reportedly asked Robinson if he thought he could withstand the racial epithets and taunts without fighting back. He reasoned that for Robinson to do so would be detrimental to him personally and to the larger goal of integrating Major League baseball. Robinson asked, “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey responded that, no, he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.”
Indeed, being the first black Major League player proved to be a difficult road for Robinson. Being the “first” is not always easy. It has its unique challenges and opportunities. This is especially so when it comes to breaking down the barriers of race. Not only can the task be lonely, but one discovers the depth of the human capacity for cruelty.
Yet, what Robinson could never forget was the spirit, courage, vision and support of Branch Rickey—and he soon learned there were others as well, who did not share the racist reactions he encountered in ballparks and communities across America. It did not ease the pain, but it allowed Robinson to keep perspective. I’m sure he wished there were more kindly voices in the stands or more friendly faces in the community, and in time their numbers did increase.
Sixty-five years ago, our country began a journey that touched more than a national sport. It changed the very nature of American society. Every time there are those willing to be “first”—and those courageous and fair enough to provide the opportunity for a “first”—we move closer to our American ideal, one worth living and dying for. Regrettably, there may always be among us those who make it difficult for those “firsts.”
Thanks, Mr. Rickey. Thanks, Mr. Robinson. And thanks to all those known and little-known “firsts” who have and continue to enrich our nation.
Retired Bishop White is the denomination’s Endorsing Agent for Chaplain Ministries and bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.