Opinion Columns & Blogs

April 20, 2013

Dr. Bill Roy: Robinson removed blinders, changed nation

Having every player wear the number 42 on April 15 of each year is a strong reminder of that day in 1947 when Jackie Roosevelt Robinson broke the color line of professional baseball.

Having every player wear the number 42 on April 15 of each year is a strong reminder of that day in 1947 when Jackie Roosevelt Robinson broke the color line of professional baseball.

At that time, baseball was the true national pastime.

It would be several years before basketball and football would rival baseball for attention and their stars would also become heroes for all ages.

So it was significant that sports heroes were white, because blacks, who today make up more than 20 percent of major league players, were barred from the leagues.

It is possible that someday this momentous event of Robinson crossing the baseline and setting up in his position at first base may not be observed, simply because future generations may not be quite able to grasp the importance of what happened that day in 1947. They may not be able to realize what a black man crossing that white line meant to the soul of America then, and has meant ever since.

The recently released movie “42” tells well the story from the time Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey decided to integrate baseball, and the time when Robinson was well on his way to becoming a star and a member of Cooperstown’s Baseball Hall of Fame.

The movie portrays the extreme racism of the middle of the 20th century by showing the denial of public accommodations to Robinson, and scripting what people were saying about Robinson.

The movie left me a little short because I recall there was so much more story to be told. But a movie can tell only so much, and the makers put together a coherent story that brings back memories for older audiences and tells an entertaining, stimulating lesson for those who know little of Robinson and racial discrimination in America.

We can also look forward to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ more inclusive upcoming film on PBS.

But this film alone is all over my experiences and memories. It so happens 1947 is the year I like to say I became a boy groom. My wife and I went into the Deep South on our wedding trip.

We witnessed an otherwise cordial, courteous Mississippi state trooper chew out a young black man, who appeared to be a World War II veteran just home, for buying cold Cokes at the drugstore. The “Boy” he addressed promised to take them outside to drink them.

After the trip, I returned to Northwestern Medical School. Discrimination was not peculiar to the South. Our entire student body had one person of color, a dark-complexioned Cuban who was not pledged by any medical fraternity, which was where unmarried students lived.

By 1951, my education continued at the city of Detroit Receiving Hospital. I roomed with a black former major who related that while in uniform he was asked to leave an upscale Paris restaurant at the request of a table of American officers of Southern persuasion.

These incidents and others like them made me at least somewhat familiar with the tough racist society Robinson faced. But he and Rickey pulled it off.

It may seem trivial to some that athletic ability and musical talents were major factors in helping black Americans out of the underclass. But it is not. Black athletes and musicians helped remove the blinders on white Americans’ eyes and let us see the scholars, scientists and leaders whose released talents make us a stronger nation today.

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