The movie "42" captures Jackie Robinson's courageous and tumultuous rise from the negro leagues to the minors and, eventually, the Brooklyn Dodgers. The painful slurs and on-the-field attacks Robinson endured brings the viewer face-to-face with pre-civil rights America. For just a few moments, a new generation gets to feel the bigotry and resulting pain, see the whites only toilets, and experience being turned away from hotels because of the color of their skin.
The movie captures the worst and the best of Jackie's journey to baseball immortality as the first black to break baseball's color barrier. As Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig observed, "Jackie Robinson running onto Ebbets Field is not only the most important and powerful moment in Baseball history, but it also changed the course of American history."
Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was partially motivated by profit, Jackie Robinson wasn't a perfect saint, and America isn't cured of all of its racism. But the America of today is not the America of 1947, partly due to these two men and the courage they had to change baseball.
In a nearly all-white suburban audience in Agoura Hills, CA, people repeatedly interrupted the movie to applaud Jackie's painful progress. In one pivotal scene, facing rabid hatred and on-the-field slurs from a competing manager, Jackie Robinson retreated to the player tunnel where he yelled out in frustration and repeatedly slammed his bat against the wall.
A comforting Branch Rickey confessed that he had never known such abuse, but he stated the uncomfortable truth, "You're the one living the sermon. You're the one who has to survive 40 days in the wilderness." He challenged him to be the hero so many needed.
The sustained, standing applause at the end of the film gave viewers a chance to affirm progress. For those living through the civil rights era, we want to believe that we're closer to being the country that Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about where the content of a man's character is more important than the color of one's skin.
But this movie reminds us that it was not long ago that, in some areas, racism was an accepted part of our national culture. Living in pre-civil-rights Atlanta from 1953 to 1958, I remember the separate drinking fountains, the "open-air" schools for black students, and their minor league baseball team--The "Atlanta Crackers." In watching "42," you're reminded that America has come a long way!
In 1993, on a flight from Atlanta to LA, I sat next to a 97-year-old black saint, Brother Clarence. His radiant smile and joy were infectious. His father had been a slave, freed after the Civil War at the age of 9. Clarence was his last-born son.
His father refused to talk about his past. He told Clarence, "I'm not going to tell you anything about slavery because you are free. Do you hear me? You are free! If you put a smile on your face and you reach out your hand to the men you meet, and they don't take it, they aren't worth knowing anyway."
Like Jackie, Brother Clarence was living his dad's sermon! He lived beyond the biases he faced, but he also confided that his great grandchildren didn't want to take his advice. He said, "They're angry! They're so free today, but they just don't know it!"
Last week, on April 15th, baseball did what it does every year. Every player takes on Jackie Robinson's number "42" to remember the impact of one man "living out his sermon."
Jackie Robinson didn't want preferential treatment; he earned his respect every day. As he said, "There's not an American in this country free until every one of us is free." It's time we truly live that dream where we stop using "preferential rights" for any race or group as an excuse to keep America divided!
For America to become what it was envisioned to be, "we the people" must unite behind the honorable label of "Americans." It's time we each earn the respect of our fellow citizens, not because we come from a given race, but because of our community service, our character and our accomplishments. Just as we have united in responding to the attacks in Boston and the explosion in Texas, may we unite as neighbors--black, white, brown, yellow, and in between--to make this great tapestry of freedom we call America work.