In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but his impact on social change was not limited to the ballpark.Sharon Robinson remembers her father assigning jobs to family members in advance of an elite gathering at their home in Stamford, Conn. It was the summer of 1963, and influential people would be attending a concert that featured renowned jazz greats Horace Silver, Herbie Mann, Billy Taylor and Joe Williams.
“My father gave me and my brothers a role,” Robinson says. “He said we could sell hot dogs and sodas and help raise money for a good cause.”
Before that, however, the Robinsons had a trip scheduled to Washington, D.C., where they would witness one of the most significant speeches in American history. On the night of Aug. 28, 1963, 13-year-old Sharon Robinson walked with her famous father, Jackie, and her family at the historic March on Washington. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his epic “I Have a Dream” speech on racial equality and nonviolent protest, the Robinson family was close by, listening intently.
“That was our first full family march,” Sharon Robinson says in an interview with American Way. “We were singing songs of freedom and my dad said, ‘I have never been so proud to be a Negro.’ ”
A few weeks later, King came to the Robinson’s jazz concert and was greeted with a large cash gift. Teenager Sharon Robinson was unaware of the exact amount, but she liked the feeling.
“To have Dr. King come to our home shortly after his speech and be able to hand him a pile of money,” Sharon says, “that was just absolutely glorious.”
Jackie Robinson earned his fame as the first African-American to play major league baseball in the 20th century, but he was so much more than an athlete. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey picked Robinson to desegregate baseball in 1947 with the understanding that as a pioneering black man in a white league, Robinson would have to endure the horrors of racism without a trace of anger. When confronted, Robinson would need to back off. When insulted, he would have to remain silent. In short, he would have to “know his place,” using the vernacular of the time. And, oh yes, he also had to excel in baseball while traveling in a country where blacks could not stay at “whites-only” hotels, nor eat in segregated restaurants, nor even drink from certain water fountains.
“For him to make this agreement not to fight back was totally out of character for Jackie,” says Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. “He was as fiery and feisty as any individual you ever met. But it speaks to the fact that he knew what was at stake. And he was willing to make a sacrifice for the good of the whole.”
Robinson’s impact can’t be overstated — not only on baseball but also on the civil-rights movement. Baseball was truly a national passion in the 1940s, and Robinson’s success opened the way for more black players — including the Cleveland Indians’ Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League — to follow him from the Negro Leagues to the major leagues. In a country that was overwhelmingly segregated, it was a tangible attack on racial barriers and was a precursor of monumental civil-rights events.