Directors: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon
View on: Your local PBS affiliate
Jackie Robinson is everything you expect to get out of a Ken Burns film, and definitely a good one. The film starts out with a history of Robinson’s life, his relationship with his wife, Rachel, and his early athletic achievements. Robinson was born in the deep south to sharecropper parents. When his father left the family, Robinson’s mother moved them to the Los Angeles area and raised Jackie and his three siblings on her own. Robinson lettered in four sports at UCLA – football, basketball, track, and baseball. His older brother, Mack was also a track star and won the silver medal in the 200 meter dash in the 1936 Olympics, finishing behind only Jesse Owens.
Robinson was an officer in the United States Army during World War II. After the war, he briefly played football and then briefly served as the athletic director and basketball coach at what was then called Sam Huston College in Austin Texas (my hometown)! Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Baseball league for a short stint before being approached by Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey and the Dodgers picked up Robinson to play for the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals, for the 1946 season. Then, in 1947, Robinson broke the color line by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Not only was he an exceptional player, he was also strong in the face of immense racism from fans and players.
One thing I really liked about this documentary is that it discussed not just Robinson’s nonviolent and outwardly calm demeanor in the face of prejudice, but also the righteous anger he had. He knew that he had to remain calm for his first couple of years, basically to prove to white people that he didn’t fit the stereotype of an “angry black man.” But slowly he began to speak out more as his career progressed. The documentary talks about the anger many people had toward Robinson as he began to defend himself.
What Robinson faced in his first few seasons paved the way for players of color to come after him, not just in baseball but in other sports that were also slow to integrate. What he faced in his last few seasons, as players and fans negatively judged him for speaking out about issues affecting him and black Americans, continues to this day for black athletes. One recent example is that of Colin Kapernick and other black players who decided to nonviolently protest the killing of black Americans by police. Colin and other players decided to sit or kneel during the national anthem before football games. Personally, I think that this action is a respectful way to state that they see an injustice and they want to bring light to that injustice. In fact, I think that part of what this country was founded on and continues to stand for today is the responsibility of each citizen to stand up to injustice and work toward equality for all.
The backlash that Robinson, Kapernick, and other players have faced as they chose a nonviolent way to protest is, to me, outrageous. White America first tells black Americans that they must protest nonviolently. Then, when black Americans choose a form of nonviolent protest, white Americans raise hell about how disrespectful these black Americans are. It’s a vicious cycle. It makes me feel that white America now values the contributions of black athletes, but they don’t want to acknowledge that black athletes also face discrimination and are part of a community that is consistently discriminated against in many ways. It makes me angry, because I think that sports are a powerful way to bring people together, but only if we value all of the players not just for their athletic ability but also simply for the fact that they are human beings. Black athletes are not commodities simply to make money or win games for someone else. But it seems like a lot of white Americans treat them that way.
After his major league career concluded, Robinson was involved with the civil rights movement – a movement that he helped to lead in its early days. As I reflect on what I think he would want us to take away from his life, it is the continued struggle for civil rights. I think that a nice way to honor Mr. Robinson would be to make a donation to Colin Kapernick’s organization, the Know Your Rights Camp, which teaches black youth about awareness of higher education, self empowerment, and how to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios. I also think Mr. Robinson would be honored to have more involvement in local ACLU chapters, fighting for the rights of all marginalized people.