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Robinson's tribulations affected much more than baseball

For someone who likes baseball and history, the movie “42” I saw last weekend was a treat. It was well made and covered all of the bases about Jackie Robinson’s first year in the major leagues.

Robinson was, of course, the first black player in the major leagues. He was brought to the Brooklyn Dodgers by Branch Rickey and was at first base in his first year, later playing at SELF-PORTRAIT - Sports Editor John Brewington

Rickey knew the tribulations Robinson would encounter and challenged him to rise above it. He suffered not only the wrath of fans, but players on other teams, and even his own teammates. It continued but waned considerably over his years in the majors.

Robinson not only broke the baseball color barrier that had prevented negroes, as they were then called, from playing in the major leagues but also he’s received credit for being the impetus for the civil rights movement.

Over 60 years since he joined the Dodgers, it’s a difficult movie to watch. As movies often do, some of the incidents shown may have occurred a year or two later, but the tone is the same.

My wife, who is much, much younger than me and not that big a fan of sports, hadn’t really known how bad things were for African Americans in those days. It was a terrible way to treat anyone.

It’s an era of our collective past that most of us would like to forget, but that we should not forget. There is still racism and bigotry, but it is more concealed and often only revealed when a perceived receptive audience is on hand.

Coincidentally, I watched a show last week about the history of the Ku Klux Klan. Lest we think that despicable organization was just in the south, it was noted that in the 1920s there were something like 3.5 million people in it. Portland, and I assume much of Oregon, was listed as a strong Klan stronghold.

When I moved to St. Helens some 40 years ago, I was stunned when a cross was burned on the lawn of some African Americans that had moved to the area. The family didn’t stick around the city long, and who could blame them.

Sunset laws used to be in effect out here. Many have heard about them—euphemistically they say African Americans should not be in the city after dark.

Newspapers weren’t always at the forefront of demanding racial equality either. I used to do a feature every week that was something like 50 Years Ago, 25 Years Ago, 10 Years Ago. Some of the articles and cartoons I found from 50 years ago back in those days were just, well awful. Racial stereotypes and slurs were all in those papers.

I think we’ve come a long ways over the past 40 years, but there still are remnants. I think it’s mostly among the older folks, though. Not so long ago, I was the recipient of a clearly racist e-mail. It was sent by someone I knew. I strongly protested and he said he hit the wrong group with his send button. He thought the cartoons he sent were funny. He’s a likeable guy, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the group he was contacting was like. I’m not sure I really want to know.

I think those that do such things these days reflect more poorly on themselves than they do on those they seek to demean.

There’s a scene in the movie where a young baseball fan listens to taunts of the crowd and his father. He is upset, but then joins in. The reference is clear about how such behavior is passed down from generation to generation.

My father’s generation was much the same: Good ole’ boys who didn’t know they were racist and really weren’t worried about it. It was traditional stereotyping of those they didn’t really understand or sympathize with. My father changed over the years. He always liked people individually and was about as gregarious as anyone I’ve ever known. I always thought he saw too much of himself in the Archie Bunker character on the “All in the Family” television series. It shows we can change.

I’m not naïve enough to think racism and bigotry have disappeared. Ironically, perhaps racists and bigots have become a minority.

Thankfully, they are a small minority of the younger generation—those under 30. Young folks are much more accepting of diversity these days and don’t understand how anyone could not be.

Jackie Robinson fought racism. He experienced it in the military and battled against it. He was a fighter and it wasn’t in his nature to not fight. Rickey convinced him to work for a greater goal. Robinson did and he endured. His life story is exceptional.

Did he provide the impetus for the civil rights movement? Perhaps. Integration of the army by President Truman came in 1948. Brown v. Board of Education came in 1954. The Civil Rights Act came in 1964.

Robinson’s number 42 was retired from all of baseball in 1997, the 50th anniversary of him breaking the color barrier. The last player to ever wear the number 42 will be Manuel Rivera, the Yankees closer. He was wearing the number before it was retired and will wear it until he does.

We may not have overcome all our prejudices and perhaps never will. But I think we can all appreciate what Jackie Robinson did for sports and for the country.

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