A decade before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, two decades before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed “I Have a Dream,” a signature event in the struggle for racial equality unfolded far from Dixie.
On the afternoon of April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson emerged as an inspiring figure in the civil rights movement when he became the first black man to play major league baseball in the 20th century, making his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field.
Robinson’s triumphs in the face of bigotry evoked a sense of pride among black people and forced the rest of America to consider anew the doctrine of white supremacy.
Robinson was 28 when he arrived in the majors. Surmounting hostility from opponents and even some Dodger teammates, he weathered the immense pressure with dignity and restraint, and he proved to be a superb ballplayer. He was a premier line-drive hitter and a daring baserunner. Playing second base for much of his career, he teamed with shortstop Pee Wee Reese in an outstanding double-play combination. And he burned with intensity.
Robinson starred on Brooklyn Dodger teams that won six pennants and a World Series championship. He was named the National League’s most valuable player in 1949, when he batted a league-leading .342.
After retiring from baseball following the 1956 season, he enlisted in the civil rights struggle, working on behalf of the N.A.A.C.P. and with Dr. King. Robinson remained devoted to integration during the 1960s, when “black power” and black nationalist figures sounded rallying cries. He worked for black enterprise projects, serving as a founder of the Freedom National Bank in Harlem and developing housing construction. His voice was heard through his columns in The New York Post and The Amsterdam News.
Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility. He died of a heart attack at his home in Stamford, Conn., in October 1972 at age 53.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan presented Robinson with a posthumous Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. In 1996, Congress authorized the minting of gold and silver coins for the next year to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut. On that anniversary, Major League Baseball retired his No. 42. On Sunday, the 60th anniversary of his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, scores of players will pay tribute by wearing his number once more.
Robinson’s widow, Rachel, has remained a revered presence at ceremonial events and has carried forth her husband’s legacy in the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which awards college scholarships to minority-group students.
Long after that epic springtime afternoon when Jackie Robinson changed the face of baseball, he remains an unforgettable figure in the story of American democracy.
Richard Goldstein – NYTimes.com