In the world of Major League Baseball, April 15 is known as Jackie Robinson Day. The holiday commemorates when the baseball star made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers and honors his legacy as the first Black American to play for the MLB.
But according to history professor Yohuru Williams, there was more to the Hall of Famer.
“The idea that you could have an African American taking field, being able to play in the same stadiums as white players and who performed on a level that was outstanding,” he says, “and Jack fulfilled all of that.”
Williams is the founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota. His essay “I’ve Got to be Me,” explores Robinson's legacy, which includes his participation in the civil rights movement.
At the request of Martin Luther King Jr., Robinson headed to Birmingham in 1963 to participate in protests as part of the Birmingham campaign.
During a moment of racial reckoning, as the trial of Derek Chauvin and protests in response to the fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright continue, the work and legacy of Robinson is prevalent now more than ever.
“This is one of those themes that runs throughout African American history, that runs throughout American history, and which really connects our past with our present,” Williams says.
But while some commended Robinson’s work as he spoke out, Williams says others felt differently about him.
Among his critics was Malcolm X, who derided Robinson and thought the athlete to be a sellout. But Williams notes that Robinson had the ability to absorb criticism and not take it personally.
At one point, Robinson even wrote about Malcolm X’s comments about him, admitting the minister had a point.
“Maybe that’s our problem,” Robinson wrote in a column for the Pittsburgh Courier. “Maybe we as Negro athletes have been around too long accepting inequities and indignities and going along with the worn out promises about how things are going to get better. If this is the way the youngsters feel, believe me, I can sympathize with their point of view.”
Despite Robinson’s impact, Williams says American heroes like him were reduced to a simple narrative.
It was during the ‘80s and ‘90s that the stories of pioneers like Robinson were simplified, eventually molding to become less complex than they initially were.
“He is the first to integrate baseball and then later on in his civil rights activism, he's an independent thinker,” Williams says. “And it's hard to pin him down with regard to his position on civil rights, on Black power.”
When civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis died last summer, his final letter spoke of the ongoing struggle for freedom and urged the American people to continue to stand for their beliefs.
Decades ago, Robinson did the same.
“Long before it was Colin Kaepernick, there was Jack. And we don't want to lose that element of that story as well,” Williams says. “It’s an important part of who he was.”
This segment aired on April 15, 2021.