By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University
Although celebrated as the person who integrated Major League baseball, Jackie Robinson was never interested in being the first Black anything—whether the first Black Major League baseball player or the first Black executive in a major white corporation—if that meant he was going to be the only Black. He believed in paving the way for others. He did that on the Dodgers.
Advocating for Racial Equality
Jackie Robinson approached life the same way he played baseball—with boundless determination. The grit that led him to steal home in the ’55 World Series led him to advocate vociferously for racial equality on and off the playing field.
On the Dodgers, Robinson helped Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella adjust to and succeed in the ‘whites-only’ league.
When it came to voicing concerns about racial inequality, Robinson wasn’t the only Black athlete to do so; he wasn’t even the only athlete in his family to do so. Boldness and determination were characteristics shared by many Black athletes of the late Jim Crow era. Through strength of character and remarkable athletic talent, they not only helped desegregate sports, but they also transformed American culture and advanced the struggle for freedom rights.
Fleeing the South
Black blood ran thick in the city streets and the rural roads of America in the summer of 1919 as whites rampaged through Black communities, determined to reassert white supremacy. These were dark days, to be sure. But the year did not start out so bleakly in one Black household in Southwest Georgia.
On January 31, 1919, in a tiny sharecropper’s shack 30 miles north of Tallahassee, in Cairo, Georgia, Mallie Robinson and her husband Jerry welcomed their fifth child, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, into the world.
Life was difficult for the Robinsons. They worked for next to nothing on the Jim Sasser farm. And it became even more challenging for Mallie when Jerry abandoned the family when Jack was only one. Wanting more out of life, she packed her meager belongings, gathered her children, and fled the South.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Racial Housing Pioneers
Most Black migrants headed due north. They rode the rails from Georgia to Harlem; from Alabama to Detroit; from Mississippi to Chicago. But Mallie headed west. She caught the Freedom Train to California, joining a half-brother who had settled in Pasadena some years earlier.
In California, Mallie could only find sporadic work as a domestic. Somehow, she managed to purchase a four-bedroom cottage with a brick front porch—a feat her children were never quite sure how she accomplished. This much they knew: To buy the house, she had to purchase it from a Black man, who bought it from a white man, who had sold it to the Black man thinking he was a white man.
Mallie’s new neighbors were not happy. They circulated a petition demanding the Robinsons leave, and when they didn’t, they threated to burn down the house, a fate that befell more than a few racial housing pioneers. But Mallie was unflinching. The Robinsons stayed put and turned that house into a home.
Growing up out West wasn’t easy for Black children. In Pasadena, young Jack and his friends, a ragtag band of Black and brown boys, faced racism constantly. The YMCA only let them enter one day a week; the other days were for whites only. Public parks were the same way.
Discriminatory treatment fueled resentment, and resentment led to mischief. Jack and his crew began swiping fruit from a grocery stand here and there. Nothing serious, but they were beginning down a path that could lead to real trouble.
While Jack was finding his way, his brother Mack, who was five years his senior, was making a name for himself. Matthew MacKenzie Robinson ran track at Pasadena Junior College, where he set several junior college track and field records.
Matthew MacKenzie Robinson
In 1936, Mack Robinson ran one of the fastest times in the country in the 200 meters, earning him an invitation to the US Track and Field Olympic Trials in New York. There, he won a spot on the national team and did not come back home empty handed. In the 200-meter final, Mack Robinson brought home the Olympic silver medal.
After the Olympics, Mack returned to Pasadena but transferred from Pasadena Junior College to the University of Oregon, where two years later he won the NCAA title in the 220-yard dash. But after college, he too struggled to secure work. For a while, the best that he could find was a job as a street sweeper. With broom in one hand, the only thing that distinguished him from his coworkers was the Olympic jacket he wore to stay warm when it got cold.
Financial concerns were never far from Jackie Robinson’s mind, either. After high school, he enrolled at nearby Pasadena Junior College so he could help his mother pay bills. But these real-life worries did not seem to impact his play. From 1937 to 1939, he excelled in football, basketball, baseball, and track, garnering the attention of perennial athletics powerhouse UCLA.
Robinson enrolled in UCLA in 1939 and continued to excel on the playing field. He became the first Bruin to letter in four sports. In basketball, he earned West Coast Conference MVP honors. In football, he led the nation in punt return average for two years. In baseball, he was a defensive standout. And in track, he won back-to-back NCAA titles in the long jump. Had the Olympics not been canceled in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II, he surely would have made the team.
Common Questions about Jackie Robinson
The grit that led Jackie Robinson to steal home in the ’55 World Series led him to advocate vociferously for racial equality on and off the playing field.
Mallie’s new neighbors were not happy. They circulated a petition demanding the Robinsons leave, and when they didn’t, they threated to burn down the house, a fate that befell more than a few racial housing pioneers.
Jackie Robinson enrolled in UCLA in 1939 and continued to excel on the playing field. He became the first Bruin to letter in four sports.