He was a pioneer on and off the field--breaking baseball’s color barrier and lecturing and lobbying later against racial inequity and injustice.
It has been 50 years since Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Would he consider it a half-century of progress? Would he be pleased with the status of race relations today?
“No, I think he’d be very disturbed about it,” said Rachel Robinson, his widow. “We’re seeing a great deal of divisiveness, a lot of hatred, a lot of tension between ethnic groups, and I think he’d be disappointed.
“We would expect to be further along by now, and we’re seeing it worldwide, tensions between groups and the failure to recognize and value differences and work out old conflicts.
“I don’t feel despair about it because I think despair and cynicism only undercut our ability to address these issues and do something about them.
“So I’ve maintained a certain level of optimism, but it’s restrained by a realistic knowledge of what’s going on in the world.”
Dignified and vibrant at 74, Rachel Robinson remains her late husband’s partner, as she put it, on a course to affect the lives of others.
She is immersed in carrying on his legacy as founder of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which has sent almost 500 minority students through college, extending through education and community service the breakthrough work he started and “allowing Jack to live on through these students.”
Rachel Isum was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her brother, Raymond, still lives in the family house on 36th Place. She and her future husband met as students at UCLA in 1941 and were married in 1946.
While Jackie Robinson went on to carve out a landmark career that changed the course of major league baseball and ultimately took him to the Hall of Fame, Rachel Robinson enhanced her Bachelor of Science degree from UCLA with a Masters in psychiatric nursing from New York University and was an assistant professor at Yale’s School of Nursing while also serving as nursing director at the Connecticut Mental Health Center.
She found time amid that busy workload to cheer the Dodgers at Ebbets Field and help raise three children: Jackie Jr., who was killed in a 1971 automobile accident; Sharon Robinson Fieffe, a practicing nurse-midwife and assistant clinical professor at Yale, and David, a coffee and sculpture importer who lives in Tanzania.
Among numerous awards and honors, Rachel Robinson has received eight honorary degrees but most prizes her nine grandchildren.
She lives in Salem, Conn., but often visits family and friends in Los Angeles.
She will be at Dodger Stadium on Saturday when the Dodgers commemorate the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut and at the Museum of Tolerance for the opening of a commemorative exhibit the next day.
During an interview with The Times, she often referred to a book she has written with Lee Daniels titled “Jackie Robinson, an Intimate Portrait.”
In it, she wrote:
“As I reflect on my life, I think of it as a creative struggle, and I share the conviction of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who, in a speech made in New York on August 4, 1857, said, ‘If there is no struggle there is no progress.’ I am one of the fortunate ones granted a mission at the age of twenty-three, a great partner, and the spirit to prevail.”
Jackie Robinson’s spirit, and in many ways that of his wife, will be commemorated throughout the year.
Players and umpires will wear “Breaking Barriers” arm patches. The U.S. Mint will sell commemorative coins. A video created by Spike Lee will be shown on stadium scoreboards. Individual clubs have scheduled commemorative events, and baseball is pledging $1 million to the Robinson Foundation, part of the foundation’s campaign to create a $12-million endowment fund.
Asked if she was satisfied with the commemorative schedule and events, Rachel Robinson said:
“I’m very satisfied. Not just [the events] that baseball has laid out because baseball is being very active in this process. But also there have been celebrations of different kinds in various cities and universities, so I’m very interested in the diversity of approaches to the celebration and very excited about everything that’s happening, because I know we’re heightening awareness of Jack’s life, activities and achievements.”
Question: Considering your pace and activities, does it seem like 50 years or 50 minutes?
Answer: Well, the way I live, I live very much in the future. I have great reverence for the past, but I live and move so fast that time goes by very fast, so it doesn’t seem like 50 years, and I’m going to be 75 years old this year, and that surprises me too.
Q: Is one moment or one memory from that first game [April 15, 1947] sharpest to you?
A: The whole day is special, but I can’t describe it again. You know, I’ve just written a book and I describe the day in the book because it obviously was a special day, and I had special anxieties and concerns that day and sort of dealt with them in a funny way, but I’ll break out in hives if I have to describe that day one more time.
Q: Well, you wrote of the day that the meaning of the moment transcended the winning of a game, that the possibility of social change seemed more concrete and the need for it more imperative and that the single most important impact of Jack’s presence was that it enabled white baseball fans to root for a black man and encouraged more whites to realize that all our destinies are inextricably linked. You also wrote that breaking the color barrier was another chance to chip away at ingrained racist attitudes. Has all of that happened?
A: I think that we had an auspicious beginning at that time, 50 years ago, an opportunity to both look at the social structure of America and to challenge it and to create change. And I think we have seen change. We had legislated discrimination in those years when we first went South and had separate facilities and all of that. And with the civil rights movement, we’ve made considerable progress, of course, but two things about the progress. I feel it’s fragile. I don’t feel it’s complete by any means. And I think society has a tendency to retrench on commitments it makes to all of its citizens.
So I think we have to stay vigilant so that when the retrenchment begins we can see it and be active in preventing us from going backward. A lot of that is based on the economics of the country, where jobs are, competition for the resources of the country, so I think changes have taken place, but it’s far from complete. We do not have a situation that is equitable, where everyone has an equal opportunity based on their own talents. And until we get to that point we haven’t really succeeded in fulfilling the goals that we started with 50 years ago.
Q: Do you believe that’s true, not only in society generally, but in baseball as well?
A: Well, I think baseball reflects society, and it certainly reflects the corporate world. So what we see as the steps that need to be taken in corporate life also need to be taken in baseball.
Q: Would you agree that there has been improved hiring of black managers and coaches, although modest?
A: Yes, but [for] the hiring of people for off-the-field positions and positions of authority within the structure. I think there’s considerable improvement that could be made there. There have been managers and general managers, but not on any kind of consistent or widespread basis. The opportunities simply have not been as open as they could be.
Q: With all of Jackie’s courage, talent and tenacity, many of his teammates over the years, Joe Black and Don Newcombe among them, have said you were the true hero, and without your support it would have been difficult for Jackie to keep going amid the abuse.
A: Jackie and I were very definitely partners in the whole enterprise, and I feel I had a significant role in it. He gave me a significant role and I took that. I’m not a heroine, I don’t see myself as that. He did not fall apart in my arms and I had to push him out the door. Some people tell that story and it’s not true.
He had his down times, he had his doubts, he had his frustrations, and, of course, that’s the relevance of a support figure. You’re there to assist them in times when they need that kind of help. But he did a lot on his own, and I think sometimes people diminish him by making it sound like I’m standing behind him and holding him up, which I did not do. I walked beside him, and he turned to me often for support, but he was an extraordinary person in and of himself.
Q: Players on other teams, and some on the Dodgers, almost staged a work stoppage to protest his employment. Is there any way for the average person to understand the pressure and abuse he was forced to endure?
A: I think it’s very hard unless you’ve been through it in one form or another. I talk to children frequently, and they have a hard time believing this was America and that people would send you hate mail just because of your color or that you would have to fight your way into a situation when you were perfectly well qualified for that role or that position. And I think likewise it’s hard to think of someone trying to injure you when you’re just doing your job. People have got to be able to empathize with other people, have got to be able to put themselves in the position of the other person. If a person can’t empathize, he’s not going to be motivated to change the injustice.
Q: Branch Rickey, then an owner and president of the Dodgers, provided the opportunity and continuous support, but when Walter O’Malley took over, as you write, that changed significantly. In what way?
A: Branch Rickey was the pioneer in this and saw it through to a successful conclusion. Walter O’Malley came in later and was a different kind of person. He didn’t quite have the investment in Jack or social change that Rickey had. I also don’t know how he felt about being compared to Rickey all the time. I think that must have been tough.
Q: Wasn’t it also O’Malley’s attempt to trade Jackie to the New York Giants that was the final impetus in prompting Jackie’s retirement?
A: Definitely. Jackie had begun to sense that he was going to be traded and had begun to look for a position outside of baseball long before the trade actually occurred. He was in good shape. Well, let me separate him from me because I was angry that the Dodgers would trade him to the enemy Giants. I felt they should have had enough of a sense of history and enough appreciation for what he did to retire him with honors instead of selling him off to the Giants as if he was an old used car.
Q: The Dodgers retired his number after they moved to Los Angeles and Peter O’Malley began to have a stronger voice in the club’s operation. You seem to have developed a close relationship with O’Malley, and he has been a strong supporter of the foundation.
A: Peter is my friend and has been over the years. We’ve worked together, and he’s supported everything I’ve tried to do. I care a lot about Peter. I’ve enjoyed the friendship very much and enjoyed his role on the board of directors of the foundation.
Q: What was the genesis of the foundation and the legacy in the context of Jackie’s contributions to society and race relations?
A: In 1973, the year after Jackie passed, I incorporated the foundation, although we didn’t become an acting entity until 1977. Our family and friends got together and decided we were determined to perpetuate Jack’s name and spirit. We just needed to find a vehicle with which to do that.
We ultimately decided our mission would be to support education, particularly the education of minority youngsters, because we knew then and know now that education is the key to any kind of decent and productive life. Jack was very concerned about the education of young people and talked about it frequently.
We target minority students because there’s so many and the need is tremendous. The only criteria are that they have a financial need and are accepted in the college of their choice. We have them in Ivy League schools, historic black colleges and state colleges and universities.
As the program has evolved, we not only provide tuition support--we see our students through four years and they get $20,000--but we also provide them with career and personal counseling if they need it, summer jobs, internship, a hot line to our office and we, in effect, have become an extended family for our Jackie Robinson scholars.
We also indoctrinate them with the notion of giving back to the community they reside in even while they’re students, so they all have community service projects that we call give-back projects, and we give an annual award for the most innovative project. We’re interested not only in the intellectual development of our young people but the character development.
Therefore, I feel that Jack still walks the earth in the shoes of these young people and they somehow stand on his shoulders, and I’m sure he would be extremely proud of the almost 500 students we’ve supported over the years who are now not only doing well in school but are thinking of others. We currently have 141 in 66 colleges and universities in 22 states, and we have a 92% graduation rate, which is the highest in the country. And we’re very proud that Jack lives on, that it’s a living legacy, and he will live on in perpetuity. This year we are fund-raising for an endowment fund of $12 million. Once we have that in place, we know this program will continue on well beyond my time. Jack often said that life’s not important except in its impact on the lives of others. That’s our motto, and the students exemplify it.
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