Jackie Robinson -- crossing the line
On Feb. 28, 1946, Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel, boarded an American Airlines flight in Los Angeles bound for Daytona Beach, Fla., for spring training. There he would try to prove that he was good enough to join the Montreal Royals, the top minor league team in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization, and integrate professional baseball.
It would be more than a year before Robinson played his first game with Brooklyn, on April 15, 1947, breaking Major League Baseball’s color line and forever changing baseball and society.
The story of the integration of baseball was perhaps the most important story involving racial equality in the years immediately following World War II. “Back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable,” the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr. said of Robinson, “he underwent the trauma and humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom.”
Never before — or since — had so much been riding on an athlete in surroundings so hostile as the Deep South in 1946, where racial discrimination was legal and brutally enforced, and where blacks who challenged it were jailed, beaten or lynched.
Robinson grew up in Pasadena and attended Pasadena Junior College before he transferred to UCLA. The former four-sport athlete at UCLA was keenly aware of the risks involved with challenging Jim Crow on its own soil. He also knew he was putting his wife’s life in jeopardy by taking her on the trip to Florida. The couple had been married less than three weeks.
Unlike Rachel, who had never been in the South, Jackie had searing memories of what had happened to him a year and a half earlier at Ft. Hood, Texas. In July 1944, Robinson, then a lieutenant in the Army, was ordered to the back of a city bus, and refused. He didn’t back down and when the bus returned to the military base, he was arrested and subsequently court-martialed for insubordination. Robinson was exonerated and then discharged from the Army in late 1944.
If Robinson had not been court-martialed, he probably would have remained with his battalion and been shipped to Europe, and Dodgers President Branch Rickey would have signed someone else. Instead, Robinson was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues when Rickey was searching for the right player to integrate baseball. Rickey secretly signed Robinson to a contract in August 1945, after receiving the ballplayer’s assurances that he would have “guts enough not to fight back” against racial epithets, spikings by cleats and worse, that no matter what came Robinson’s way, he would restrain himself.
Two months later, the Montreal Royals announced it had signed Robinson. When black America learned about the signing, the things denied for so long suddenly seemed possible. Ludlow Werner, editor of the New York Age, a black weekly, wrote that Robinson “would be haunted by the expectations of his race.... White America will judge the Negro race by everything he does. And Lord help him with his fellow Negroes if he should fail them.”
The racial climate in the United States at that time — especially in the South — was tense, unpredictable and violent. In return for fighting for their country in World War II, black veterans wanted racial equality when they returned home. Instead, many were killed to teach them their place.
A few days before the Robinsons left Los Angeles, racial tensions erupted in Columbia, Tenn. A black woman and her son, who had recently been discharged from the Navy, complained to a white merchant about a radio he was supposed to have repaired. The merchant slapped the woman. Her son then shoved the merchant through the store’s plate-glass window. The next morning, hundreds of law enforcement officers and white townspeople converged on the town’s black section, destroying homes, businesses and churches, and beating up and arresting black citizens. More than 100 blacks were jailed and two were shot to death while in custody.
The Robinsons flew through the night that February and landed in New Orleans. After a layover they were scheduled to fly to Pensacola, Fla., before going on to Daytona Beach. When the Robinsons lined up to board the plane for Pensacola, they were told they had been bumped. When they tried to get something to eat at a segregated restaurant in the airport, they were prohibited from entering.
Twelve hours after they had landed in New Orleans, the Robinsons boarded a flight to Pensacola. When they landed to refuel, a flight attendant asked them to exit the plane. Once the Robinsons were on the tarmac, they were told that bad weather was expected so the plane needed to add more fuel. To counter the weight of the additional fuel, three passengers — the Robinsons and a Mexican woman — had to be removed. As Robinson listened to the explanation, he saw white passengers board the plane. Robinson felt a growing sense of rage, but remembering Rickey’s words, he choked back the anger.
Instead of waiting for the next plane, the Robinson took a Greyhound bus across the state to Daytona Beach. They relaxed in reclining seats at the front of the bus. When white passengers boarded the bus at the next stop, the driver pointed a finger at the Robinsons and ordered them to the back of the bus. He called Jackie “boy.” Robinson, knowing that an incident of any kind might jeopardize what was called “baseball’s great experiment,” did as he was told.
Nearly 36 hours after the Robinsons left Los Angeles, the couple — hungry, tired and angry — arrived at the Daytona Beach bus station. They were met by Wendell Smith and Billy Rowe, journalists with the influential black weekly the Pittsburgh Courier.
“Well, I finally made it,” Robinson snapped, “but I never want another trip like this one.”
Robinson stayed up into the early hours of the morning bitterly recounting what he and his wife had been through, seething over what the Greyhound bus driver had called him. “He was very annoyed and hurt,” Rowe later remembered. “He had been called a ‘boy.’ This man had become a ‘boy.’”
Robinson told Smith and Rowe he did not think he could get a fair tryout in Florida and said he wanted to quit and return to the Negro Leagues. Smith and Rowe talked with him, explaining — as Rickey had — that it was important for him to suffer certain indignities so other blacks could follow him. “We tried to tell him what the whole thing meant, that it was something he had to do,” Rowe said.
Chris Lamb, a professor of communication at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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