The movie “42”, which was about Jackie Robinson’ first two years in white professional baseball, the first with Montreal and the second with the Dodgers, was good enough to provide a sense of how terror filled as well as significant was his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, something that did not as yet have that name. Robinson was singularly under fire and a failure on his part would have set back the cause of black equality significantly. Joe Louis had been an ethnic figure but he had not challenged stereotypes. Robinson displayed himself as just as good if not morally better than the whites who castigated him and so he prefigured Martin Luther King, Jr., who also played that irony for all it was worth. And all of this happened over a relatively brief period of time. Robinson was the lance that opened the boil of segregation and those who hated him knew that. He deserved the accolade delivered by Branch Rickey, superbly played by Harrison Ford, that he was a Christ figure. The movie has a deep impact because it makes clear just how vile racial hatred was and yet how some people could not understand in their gut that there could be any other way and so rejected integration with every angry feeling they could command. The crowds in the stands are clearly modeled in their looks on Forties sports photographs and the movie captures the spirit and not just the look of those times when it comes to race, rightly avoiding touching on any of the other topics of the times, whether of politics or of culture.
Robinson, startling as it is to say, is still a controversial figure. There were two comments I thought I heard correctly from other members of the movie audience as I left a showing of “42”. One person made the carping complaint that other people’s numbers had also been retired. Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle had their numbers retired. But in those cases, I thought to intrude to say, the Yankees alone retired those numbers. Robinson’s is the only number that has been retired for all of major league baseball. You might think that honor is undeserved, but it is the tribute that has been paid to Robinson. Another person said that Robinson was manipulated by the Communists. (People who don’t like black people as a group still insist that they are manipulated by others and can’t get into either mischief or good things all by themselves.) Yes, Robinson had been sympathetic to Paul Robeson, but so were most Liberals at the time. I think the guy must be confusing the charge made against Robinson with the one made against Martin Luther King, Jr. Robinson was, for god’s sake, a Republican until the mid Sixties.
So the film has an impact in that it riles some people while leaving others with just a feel good feeling. It therefore may be asking too much to want a film about Robinson’s off field career, especially after he retired from baseball. That would present a much more complex figure, one who knew that his central role had been overtaken by that of King, but who continued to do good and important work in very different directions than what he did which he was in the spotlight and that shows just how complex was the work that had to be done if the Civil Rights Movement was to achieve its goals.
The first thing Robinson did after leaving baseball was to serve Charles Black as Vice President for Personnel at Chock Full o’Nuts, a Starbucks of its time. It served coffee at countless stores that had few tables but lots of counter space. It also served such concoctions as a date nut and cream cheese sandwich much favored, for reasons I never understood, by my fellow undergraduates. Charles Black served as Robinson’s second mentor, after Rickey and before Nelson Rockefeller, whom Robinson tried to help get to be President and who later appointed him to his Albany cabinet, and one wonders whether Robinson ever thought that he might make a go of it without a white mentor, and so might well have appreciated the insularity of Barack Obama, who is his own man.
Robinson’s job at Chock Full o’Nuts was to open up the ranks of the counter staff there to black people, which might not be thought to be a problem in ‘progressive” New York, and that is not what became the problem. Robinson was so successful that soon most of the counter staff were black, and some customers found that startling or even shocking because it betokened a kind of segregation. Charles Black was forced to make a statement that employment was open to white people, but that black people flocked to work there because the pay and working conditions were good, which is to downplay the fact that some white workers might not have wanted to be in an environment where they were in the minority. So this was a necessary transition: black people not as tokens but as the context for others. It was a barrier less marked and less traumatic than the introduction of a few blacks into previously all white contexts, but it certainly put the shoe on the other foot in that white people would now have to mind their p’s and q’s rather than the other way around.
For a decade or so, that reverse integration problem was a neglected but necessary aspect of social change. It was noted in the press boxes when the Brooklyn Dodgers first fielded a team in which the majority of the nine players on the field were black. That occurred in 1956. For a while banks had a few white tellers and then some banks introduced ethnic teams so that one branch had all black or all Indian or all Hispanic people on the grounds that less friction would be created that way. Not liking a fellow teller or an assistant bank manager was not a racial issue but a personal one. That was in the Eighties and traces of it linger on, as best my impressions tell me. Robinson had been a presiding presence over reverse integration, as the process might be called.
Robinson would have made a lousy politician or even a movement leader. He was too outspoken. He told a Congressional Committee early on, before he had become a legend in his own time, that he could understand if young black men did not want to join the military, given the persistence of racial segregation in this country. He wrote a column for Dorothy Schiff’s Liberal New York Post that occasionally even miffed those readers. He criticized George Weiss, the owner of the New York Yankees (my Yankees) for coming so late to the integration of his ball team. True enough. He was even so ungracious as to mention, at a ceremony marking the anniversary of his breakthrough into baseball, that he would feel better about the award if there were black managers on the sidelines. He did not give up. His cleats kept coming in high.
Robinson died early, at age 46, from diabetes, always to be remembered for those first two years in baseball, not for these later things. What a movie that would make, recounting the unfolding of the integration process that went parallel with and followed King’s movement and the contributions of his associates and followers: Ralph Abernathy and the Poor People’s Campaign; Jesse Jackson and more than symbolic national black politics; Andy Young as a black man taking a leading role in diplomacy and White House politics ten years before Colin Powell did. They also all need their movies made.