April 15, 1947

Published: March 7, 2023

By Jim Lichtman
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At the end of the month, 30 teams will step out of the dugout to begin another season of Major League Baseball. Thirty rookies are among them.

Seventy-six years ago, a rookie stepped out of the dugout and into history. His name was Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

In a conversation for my book, What Do You Stand For? documentarian Ken Burns eloquently speaks about the importance of that day and more.

“The most powerful guiding principle in my life has been and is now the conviction that the past is indeed prologue, and we cannot know where we are headed if we do not understand from whence, we came. From this, we can clearly see the futility of racism, for instance, which is the end result of the need to point the finger, blame, and vilify our neighbor in order to escape personal responsibility for our own perceived miseries,” Burns said.

The first of many “moments of principle,” or moments of consciousness, is the moment when Jackie Robinson stepped into the previously all-white baseball world of the Dodgers and changed everything.

What makes this a “moment of principle” for you?

Jackie Robinson is a particularly great hero because he transcended the skill that it takes to be a Major League ballplayer and entered the realm of almost Biblical proportions when he exhibited the necessary forbearance to withstand the withering racism that took place as the first African American to join Major League Baseball.

We had called it “our national pastime.” But how could it be a national pastime when many of the best players—as it turns out, some of the greatest players ever—were for decades, under a gentleman’s agreement, excluded from playing this game and were forced to develop separate but athletically equal leagues?

My favorite statistic in baseball is that in the year after Jackie Robinson was begrudgingly allowed to participate and then later, in very small measures one or two a team, in the National League, African Americans won the MVP nine out of the next eleven years. That proves how much we had missed. But it all goes back to the ability of the experiment of Robinson to be a success. That it was based on the nature of his character, his principles, his willingness to turn the other cheek, to exhibit that kind of Biblical forbearance, that turns it into one of the great dramas—not just in American history, not just in sports history, but in all of human history.

What impact did Robinson’s success have on your own life?

Well, I’ve always been drawn—and I can’t say exactly why—emotionally and psychologically, to the fault line that has bedeviled and, I think, ennobled our country’s experiment since its inception—and that is the fault line of race. When Thomas Jefferson wrote our creed, “All men are created equal” he owned more than two hundred human beings and never saw fit, in his lifetime, to free them.

And let’s remember that it’s easy for us to look back—almost with condescension—and say that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves. But let’s remember, it also freed the rest of us, too. Because, we were burdened as white people, even if we weren’t slave owners, with the toleration of slavery in a country that had just proclaimed that all men were created equal. So, in 1861, four score and five years after the Declaration of Independence, we were still burdened by this terrible stain of slavery. So, the Emancipation Proclamation frees everybody.

Most countries see themselves as an end in and of themselves. We Americans see ourselves as improvable, always improving, and I like that about the country. So, the mystery of that wonderful statement, “pursuit of happiness” I think is what’s animated our desire always to get better. And that’s going to be in racial dimensions, it’s going to be in personal dimensions, it’s going to be in almost every field of human endeavor I can imagine. But, I like being part of a country that’s in the process of becoming.

How can we overcome intolerance?

Well, I think we have to see how foolhardy it is to judge people based on the color of their skin and not the content of their character. That’s Dr. King speaking. That’s an important thing and it just takes a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of vigilance, just like liberty, to overcome the very myopic discriminations that take place just because someone looks different than oneself.

Soon after The Civil War [documentary] came out I was giving a big speech in Wilmington, Delaware, and a young girl—maybe twelve or thirteen years old—asked me a question. “What is racism?” And I looked at her and I realized how important a question it was for her to ask and to understand. And I said that it was probably the horrible, terrible, flip side of a very understandable human emotion, which is love of one’s own. And when that love of one’s own metastasizes into hate, we begin to make distinctions about other people based on their differences from us. And what could be a more obvious, and yet superficial, difference than the color of one’s skin? So, when that’s erased, as I believe it can be, we will enjoy the true blessings of liberty.

“A life,” Robinson said, “is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”


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