Monday, April 15, 2013

The Historical Background to Jackie Robinson’s Story

The other evening I viewed the new film about Jackie Robinson’s life titled, 42 directed by Brian Helgeland and starring Chadwick Boseman in the title roleThe film is one of the few Hollywood productions that I would recommend.  Even with all of the film’s limitations, we see a realistic depiction of the obstacles Jackie Robinson needed to overcome just to play major league baseball.

I believe that the Jackie Robinson story becomes even more compelling when we take a look at many of the events that led to the integration of major league baseball.  We can begin with the fact that Jackie Robinson was not the first Black baseball player to play in the major leagues.

19th century baseball and Reconstruction

Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday were among dozens of Black baseball players who competed in the major league that was known as the American Association in the 1870’s and 1880’s.  So, the immediate question is: Why were Black baseball players allowed to play in the 19th century, but then excluded from the major league game until 1947?

We can begin to answer this question with an excerpt from President Abraham Lincoln’s speech after the Civil War battle at Gettysburg.  Lincoln argued that the thousands of soldiers in the Union Army who died in that battle did not “die in vain.”

As a result of the Civil War, the U.S. government passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.  The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.  The Fourteenth Amendment gave full citizenship rights to everyone born in the United States.  The Fifteenth Amendment gave full voting rights to all citizens.

The Fourteenth Amendment also declared that people who participated in or gave support to those who were engaged in insurrection would not have the right to hold political office in the United States.  This section of the Amendment prevented everyone who supported the Confederacy during the Civil War from holding political office.

This meant that the four million former slaves who lived in the former Confederate states now had the right to vote and to hold political office.  The governments in the South after the Civil War were called the Reconstruction Governments. 

Those governments were the most democratic in the history of the United States and allowed many former slaves to learn how to read and write.  During slavery the law clearly prohibited slaves from learning to read.

Then, in 1877 the Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes made a deal where federal troops were withdrawn from the former Confederate states.  This deal took place at a time when terrorist organizations that would become the Ku Klux Klan were organizing to militarily defeat the Reconstruction governments.  After a number of years the Ku Klux Klan managed to take political control and used the Democratic Party as their front organization.

Moses and Welday Walker played baseball in the American Association because of the fact that the Reconstruction Governments existed and opposed racial discrimination.

When we read about this history, we oftentimes see how the Jim Crow Laws that denied Black people citizenship rights, had their beginnings with the Supreme Court decision of Plessey vs. Ferguson.  However, as we have seen, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave everyone born in the United States full citizenship rights. 

The facts are that the Supreme Court isn’t supposed to have the right to reverse the Constitution.  However, that is exactly what they did and the federal government did nothing to correct the Supreme Court’s error.  The reason for this inaction had to do with the fact that both political parties in this country gave full support to the segregationist policies of Jim Crow.

As result of these policies the government allowed for thousands of Black people to be lynched by racist mobs.  All of those lynchings were acts of murder and murder is supposed to be against the law in the United States. 

Since Black people were supposed to have full rights in this country, the federal government had an obligation to prosecute the people who murdered thousands of Black citizens.  When federal government officials refused to prosecute these murderers, they became accomplices to thousands of these murderers. 

The rise of the C.I.O.

During the depression of the 1930’s the capitalist economy of the United States fell apart.  Unemployment reached about 30%, banks closed their doors, and employers routinely cut wages.  The union movement at this time was very weak.  Unions had participated in about sixty years of strike action since 1877, and most of these strikes ended in defeat.

Then, in 1934 things began to change.  Three strikes managed to win broad solidarity and win union recognition.  These strikes sparked the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and millions of workers became union members.  This unionization drive was cut short by the U.S. entry into the Second World War.     

The Militant Newspaper was one of the few papers that followed the struggle against racial discrimination during the Second World War.  The articles that documented these struggles are contained in the Pathfinder book Fighting Racism in World War II by C.L.R. James and others.

Jackie Robinson engaged in one of these acts of defiance when he was a lieutenant in the army stationed in Fort Hood, Texas in 1943.  Robinson refused to sit in the back of a bus and the authorities arrested him.  He was placed on trial in a military court and sat in chains as his trial proceeded.

In 1941 there was a strike organized by the United Auto Workers against the Ford Motor Company.  Henry Ford had pioneered the assembly line, but this innovation was useless without workers who would do the job.  Ford found it difficult to recruit workers who would do the arduous, dangerous, and monotonous work his assembly line required.  For this reason, Ford hired thousands of Black workers to toil in his plants.

At the time, Ford was the largest automotive producer.  In order for the UAW to become a national union it had to prove to Black workers that it would support their interests.  The UAW did this, won the Ford workers into its ranks, and their 1941 strike won union recognition.      

After the war, the United States government wanted the armed forces to remain in Asia in order to confront the new revolutionary government in China.  The soldiers in the military had other ideas and organized a movement to “Bring the Troops Home.”  This movement succeeded in forcing the government to abandon their militaristic plans in Asia for a while.

After the war, workers found that employers eliminated millions of jobs due to a decrease in armaments production.  The capitalists in this country had reaped enormous profits during the war, and also because the government attempted to enforce a no strike policy.

Facing this reality, millions of working people mobilized and carried out the largest strike wave in the history of this country.  All of the basic industries were shut down, and unions forced employers to grant major concessions. 

This strike wave took place at the same time as the labor movement in Europe advanced.  There were also colonial revolutions unfolding in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Algeria.    

Jackie Robinson

I believe it is useful to consider that all the above events took place before Jackie Robinson played baseball in the major leagues.  In the film 42 various characters mentioned that the times were changing in the United States.  The above events begin to explain why they were changing.

Certainly, in 1947 Jim Crow segregation continued to be the law of the land.  However, Chris Lamb in his book Blackout – The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training, gave some interesting information as to the racial climate in this country during those years.  According to a survey Lamb cited, 75% of the baseball fans interviewed at that time supported the idea of Blacks competing in the major leagues.  Lamb also sighted another survey showing how the majority of major league baseball players also supported the integration of the game.

According to Lamb, the way Jackie Robinson was portrayed in his first minor league game in the film 42 was distorted.  The film portrays Robinson as being booed by the majority of the fans.  Certainly Robinson expected those boos, especially since the game was being played in Daytona Beach, Florida.

However, when Robinson came up to bat the sellout crowd at the stadium responded in near silence.  Black spectators and a minority of the white fans broke this silence.  Robinson remembered the chants of some of those fans.  “Come on black boy!  You can make the grade”,  and “They’re giving you a chance—now come on and do something about it.” 

While today we would not speak in this language, these comments were in no way meant to be hostile to Robinson.  To the contrary, they spoke to the fact that these fans believed he had the potential to compete against any players in baseball.

Clearly there was an enormous amount of hatred hurled at Robinson during his career.  The problem was that while most of the fans supported the integration of baseball, few took on the racists who made life difficult for Robinson.

There was a scene in the film 42 where we saw the kind of action that did make a difference.  A Philadelphia manager repeatedly called Robinson the n-word while he was at bat.  One of his teammates came out of the dugout and face-to-face threatened this manager.  The manager showed everyone the coward that he was, and ended his racist tirade.  Had more people made this kind of stand, Jackie Robinson would have had an easier time in baseball.

The government’s refusal to act

We might consider that Robinson, as well as all Black people were supposed to have full constitutional rights according to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  Therefore, the “gentleman’s agreement” that barred Black people from the major leagues was always illegal. 

In the film 42 we see a police officer ordering Jackie Robinson to leave a game because his presence violated the Jim Crow laws.  The action of this officer was one of the thousands of violations of federal laws that the federal government refused to enforce.   

Branch Rickey

The one flaw to the film 42 was the portrayal of Branch Rickey who was the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Rickey made the then unconventional decision to break the “gentleman’s agreement” and hire a Black player to compete in the major leagues. 

However, in the film 42 Rickey gave one of his reasons for breaking the color line in baseball.  He stated that he was a “business man.”  In fact Rickey was about 66 years old when Robinson played his first major league game.  Before that, Rickey had gone along with the “gentleman’s agreement.”

Rickey reportedly paid players for the Dodgers less than any other owner in his day.  Jackie Robinson was a world-class player who became the Rookie of the Year in his first year in baseball.  Robinson also became Most Valuable Player.  During Robinson’s tenure with the Dodgers, they were always one of the top teams and in one year they won the World Series. 

In many of Robinson’s games fans packed the stadium to see the first Black player in the major leagues compete.  Understanding all of this, we can see why Rickey made an excellent business decision by recruiting Jackie Robinson.  In other words, Rickey had entirely different motivations from Robinson for breaking the color line.

Towards the end of the film 42, the character of Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford, gave another legitimate reason for why he recruited Robinson.  He said that when he saw Robinson in the major leagues, for the first time, he could be genuinely proud of the game.


Jackie Robinson wasn’t the best player in the Negro Leagues or the major leagues.  Yet, today is April 15, and on every April 15 every player in the major leagues wears Robinson’s number 42.  Clearly these players are honoring the contribution Robinson made on and off the field.  As was said in the film, Jackie Robinson helped to make baseball a game people can be proud of.

Today there continues to be systematic discrimination with respect to employment, housing, education, health care, and in the so-called justice system.  However, the discrimination Jackie Robinson endured was significantly worse than the discrimination we see today.  Yet, Robinson was one of many who defied the discrimination of those times and made a real contribution towards the struggle to achieve human dignity.

For these reasons he clearly deserves the honor and respect that people give his memory today.

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