Jackie Robinson in civil rights march

Jackie Robinson in civil rights march

We want the hero, never really imagining that collectively we might wear that mantle.  I composed these words in my head as Jane and I delighted in watching “42” at a local theatre.  The inspiring story of Jackie Robinson being the first black player to break the “white” barrier in professional baseball is well known to my generation.  He was a remarkably talented but patient man in a world about to change.

Yet I came away from the inspiring movie with the sense that Mr. Robinson’s role in it all, while compelling, was actually underwritten by a kind of citizen activism that came to prominence 20 years later during the 1960s.

Yes, Jackie Robinson was a true champion.  Yes, he won Rookie of the Year and the Most Valuable Player.  True, he helped his team to win six pennants and was himself conducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962.  He was a true champion in every real and true sense of the word.

But we might never have heard of him if a tireless and ultimately successful citizen’s movement had not struggled for a decade to open what had been an impassable door from the beginning of American history.  When the movement started, those participating had never heard of Jackie Robinson – they prepared the way for a hero, a game-changer, long before he arrived.

The movie makes much of the Harrison Ford character, Branch Rickey, the team’s general manager, and his willingness to force the issue with the league.  Yet in many ways Rickey could claim substantial support behind the scenes that rarely made it into the movie.

Truth is, Jackie Robinson was part of a citizen’s campaign – an activist in his own right – that took on an immense challenge that held little hope of success.  But they did live in a democracy that, if pressured effectively, could eventually open its doors to change.  Starting in the 1940s, emerging civil rights groups, progressive white activists, the odd courageous politician, and an emerging black press began to fight for integration in baseball.  The optics were obvious: get black players into America’s favourite pastime and racial barriers would begin to fall across the board.

Nor was it just about baseball. Segregation in education, employment, government, the military, housing, even the arts, was on the movement’s radar; baseball was merely the most convenient target to capture attention.  These were the days when black lynching managed to escape the law, when all the terrible things confronting the black community couldn’t provide enough shock to change the system.  It was just prior to Martin Luther King Jr. and the breaking out of the civil rights movement that was to change a generation.

The abuse heaped upon Robinson was nevertheless heaped upon him largely in public; the other members of his black community had to endure the awful shames in private.  So, it had to “go public,” had to be raised to a level of national consciousness that would eventually trouble the political system into reforming itself or face the judgment of history and its own citizens.  The way to do it, in part, was to push the baseball establishment into hiring black players at the professional level – where the media and public exposure were at their greatest.  Lost in much of the coverage of the era was the role played by progressive unions and their members.  They knew how to get their numbers out and that the protection of rights was as important for race as it was employment.  They assisted in getting over one million signatures signed to a petition pressing baseball to respond positively to the pressure.

Some courageous politicians (deemed rogues at the time) put their political capital behind the need for change.

Why do we always display this penchant for individual celebrities instead of systemic champions?  Robinson was amazing, but he walked through a door that had been partially opened by tens of thousands of citizens who kept up the pressure until those forces – public and private – pushing from the other side could no longer keep it shut.  In so many ways it was those progressive citizens who paved the way for Jackie Robinson, not the other way around – something he repeatedly acknowledged long after his playing career was over and he went on to be a champion in the civil rights movement.  Why do we keep looking for that one person to break the glass ceiling, for him to lead us to the promised land of change, to sacrifice herself for the sake of all?  We do it because it’s easier than working together.  Let the champions take the shot at fame; maybe we’ll follow.

If Jackie Robinson’s marvelous success taught us anything it is that he built on the marvelous underpinning of a committed and enlightened movement.  Those that preceded them were unknown, but were already practicing what a young black minister would shout out 15 years later:  “A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt.  A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution,” said Martin Luther King Jr. and he was right.

True change is not found in Tommy Douglas, , Nelson Mandela, Pierre Trudeau, or perhaps even his son.  They merely walked through a door others had opened for them and were granted a celebrity denied those who walked before.

We always need champions, but more than that we require everyday citizens who become heroic because they are many.