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On April 15, 2022, when 56,000 fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers head to the famed stadium in Chavez Ravine to watch the Dodgers take on the Cincinnati Reds, they won’t just be eating peanuts and popcorn and celebrating their love of America’s National Pastime. Both fans and players will wear jerseys emblazoned with the number 42 on them in tribute to the one and only Jackie Robinson.
Indeed, the date marks the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball on April 15, 1947.
His widow, 99-year-old Rachel Robinson — she turns 100 on July 19 — plans to be in Dodger Stadium to commemorate the moment, too.
“She has been dogged about keeping the legacy alive,” says Della Britton the president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
Rachel Robinson founded the nonprofit organization in 1973, one year after Jackie Robinson’s death in 1972. The foundation’s goal is “to promote higher education and the values embodied in the life and legacy of sports and civil rights icon Jackie Robinson.”
Rachel Robinson is also about to see a longtime dream come to the life: the July 26 opening of the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York City.
“I’m very, very focused on when you walk into that museum, you will instantly know that this was a man who did a lot more than play baseball,” Britton says.
“When I had my private conversation with her,” recalls Britton of talking to Rachel Robinson, “she said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted a fixed tribute to Jack.’ You know, her beloved Jack — and she’s the only one that calls him Jack. No one else.”
Rachel Robinson didn’t want a shrine to her husband, though. Instead, she wanted a place where people in the community could come discover what Jackie Robinson stood for and learn his full legacy.
To that end, the museum will feature fun, engaging content about baseball, and thanks to an anonymous million dollar grant, there will be a character education program called “Be 42”. And, of course, the museum will take deep dive into Robinson’s civil rights activism, including his relationship with the Black press.
When Robinson made his major league debut on April 15, 1947, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and baseball was still a racially segregated sport.
Sportswriters at Black newspapers as well as Black politicians had long called for the integration of baseball, but until Robinson signed with the Dodgers, Black players had been restricted to the Negro leagues.
It’s been well documented in media — including in the late Chadwick Boseman’s star turn as Robinson in the film “42” that Jackie Robinson had more courage and fortitude than most in order to endure the threats and racial slurs hurled at him by white players and fans.
The mainstream media didn’t report on this harassment. But the Black press covered Robinson regularly and enthusiastically — and they got into the nuances of what Robinson meant to the Black community.
In 1947, the Baltimore Afro-American ran an interview with Robinson where he acknowledged the pressure he felt about being the first Black MLB player and having to publicly endure racism.
“I don’t guess anybody really understands exactly how I feel about being signed up,” Robinson told reporter Michael Carter. “I feel sort of as if everyone was looking at me. I feel that if I ﬂop, or conduct myself badly — on or off the ﬁeld — that I’ll set the advancement back a hundred years. Why, I feel that all the little colored kids playing sandlot baseball have their professional futures wrapped up somehow in me.”
Carl Erskine, 95, one of the only living Major League Baseball players to play with Robinson on the Dodgers saw the racist treatment firsthand.
“Our nation was truly Black and white,” Erskine, who is white, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the way it was. It was a very distinct cultural divide. So with what Jackie did, people saw what a gentleman he was, and how intelligent he was, and how exciting he was as a player. He broke down lots of social barriers that were ingrained in our society for a couple of centuries.”
Britton wants to keep that barrier-breaking going at the upcoming museum.
“We want to recruit those people who are willing to talk about race relations,” she says — and do it with a spirit of candid goodwill. “We need to have more, you know, well-meaning white folks that are willing to talk about race,” Britton says. “It’s a difficult topic, I understand that. But we are going to do our best to make sure that dialogue happens.”
Dialogue coupled with action is right in line with what Robinson believed. “When you walk into the museum, you will see a section about his civil rights activism,” Britton says.
Starting around 1960, Britton says the Robinsons hosted an annual jazz concert at their home. The first of those concerts raised bail money for activists in the South.
“It was bail money for this group that was led by this young, not well known at the time preacher named Martin Luther King,” Britton says. “And they sent, literally, a duffel bag of cash down South to bail out Freedom Riders.”
It’s no wonder that Martin Luther King once described Jackie Robinson as “a sit-inner before the sit-ins and a freedom rider before the Freedom Rides.”
“He got on a plane and went down to Birmingham after the church was bombed because he knew that would draw the press,” Britton says of Robinson’s activism. He “hoped that the press would cover the fact that there were water hoses and dogs and you know, the kinds of things that were happening in the South.”
Many people don’t know about the relationship between Dr. King and Robinson was so close that the two regularly exchanged letters — letters that will be on display at the upcoming museum. Robinson, Britton says, starts “every letter with ‘Man, I’m so grateful for your work. Thank you for all you do. Now, let’s talk about why we need to go to war to fight.’”
Martin Luther King responds, as expected, by talking about nonviolence. Robinson would reply “But you know, these folks aren’t nonviolent,” she says.
“It’s a great exchange, it really is,” she says, noting that “the white press didn’t cover that they had such respect for each other.”
Robinson also served as the chairman of the NAACP and raised a million dollars for the civil rights organization shortly after he retired from baseball in 1957. He’d begun working as the vice president for human personnel at Chock full o’Nuts coffee, and made again history as “the first African American officer level executive at a major corporation,” Britton says.
“Jackie would say, ‘Look, the Black community buys Chock full o’Nuts,’” Britton says. He “spearheaded the concept of giving back to those communities that support your product. So the whole notion of corporate philanthropy and corporate responsibility was there.”
Britton says the museum will also feature information about Jackie Robinson’s relationship with Malcolm X, his efforts to start a Black-owned bank, and the store he started in Harlem.
Britton’s knowledge about Robinson is encyclopedic. “I’ve read just every book written about him — everything I could,” she says. But it’s clear, learning about Robinson isn’t just an academic exercise or merely something for her job.
She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a baseball-loving household. “My daddy used to say, ‘You know, Jackie Robinson is royalty.’”
Nowadays, the tagline on Britton’s email is one of Jackie Robinson’s quotes from 1957: “The most important issue of our time is the right of first-class citizenship for all Americans.”
“That’s 1957 and we still aren’t there, folks,” Britton says.
She hopes that on April 15 — Jackie Robinson Day 2022 — people nationwide remember what Jackie Robinson cared about most: Justice, equal rights, and opportunities for Black people.
In his final years, Jackie Robinson was actually estranged from the Dodgers and the sport he loved, in part because he hadn’t seen a commitment by Major League Baseball to put Black people in manager roles. Today there are only two Black managers in the MLB — Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros.
“I think if you look back at why people think of me the way they do,” Robinson told a reporter just days before his death, “it’s because white America doesn’t like a Black guy who stands up for what he believes.”
“People say, ‘Well, you know, he was worn out. You know, he had diabetes at the end,’” Britton says. “But it wasn’t the sports that wore him out. It was that he couldn’t stop trying to do whatever he could to lift up his people.”
It’s clear that this commitment drives Rachel Robinson too. From showing up to the anniversary game at Dodgers Stadium for Jackie Robinson Day to putting her all into the museum, she’s ensured her late husband’s work continues.
Britton sums it up so well: “What a family, what a man, what a legacy.”