Remembering Why Jackie Robinson Is a Hero

Hollywood is giving a big-budget treatment to the story of Jackie Robinson, and the film, 42, premieres this weekend.  Having greatly admired Jackie Robinson since I was a child, I'm pretty excited, and looking forward to seeing it.

But while the film recounts Robinson's legacy as "the black ball player whose courage overcame white racism," there is another story that the movie likely will not tell -- one that I think is equally important in remembering why Jackie Robinson is a hero.  That is the story about his legacy as "the ex-ball player whose courage overcame black racism."

There is a reason why this is a lesser-known story.  It doesn't fit the narrative that Jackie Robinson set the stage for modern black activism, the militant, separatist tactics of which took root in the sixties.  When the curtain is pulled back, it becomes clear that Robinson stood for something entirely different.  

You wouldn't know that to hear Al Sharpton speak, however.  He conveniently invokes Robinson for his legacy as a champion against white racism, which, undoubtedly, Sharpton fancies himself.  On January 31, 2013, on what would have been Robinson's 94th birthday, Al Sharpton gave a monologue on his MSNBC show Politics Nation which celebrated Robinson as an American hero and a "game-changer."  Sharpton relates that, in spite of all the racial hatred Robinson endured, he "refused to meet violence with violence."  He goes on:

In studying him I learned that Branch Rickey, who decided to courageously break the color barrier, looked for a black that had the temperament and the focus to take all of the jeers, to take all the hostility, and take all of the hate, and still perform, and rise above what he was facing.  Jackie Robinson showed a change agent must first change themself.

If Sharpton had really given any diligent "study" to Jackie Robinson beyond what the average American knows of him, he would have discovered that his ideology does not occupy the same moral platform as Robinson's, and furthermore, had the two men occupied the same moment in history, Sharpton would have railed against Robinson as an Uncle Tom and a charlatan.  And likewise, Robinson would have condemned Sharpton appropriately.

Let us rewind to 1995.  A younger, portlier Sharpton and his National Action Network organized a boycott of a Harlem store owned by Fred Harari.  The ruckus was caused by the fact that Harari had rented a space in his building to a record shop owner, and when Harari sought to expand his business, he decided to stop renting out that space.  See, Harari was Jewish, and the record shop was owned by a black man.  Clearly, Sharpton's "Buy Black" committee didn't like this development.

So Sharpton took action.  He said publicly, "We will not stand by and allow them to move this brother so some white interloper can expand his business."  Inspired by such rhetoric, mobs took to the streets chanting, "Kill the crackers!" and "Get the Jews!"  The result was that Harari's store was burned down after "an individual shot four whites inside the store and set fire to the building, killing seven."

This isn't the only incident like this that the MSNBC host has on his dossier.  Rewind a bit further, to 1991.  Again, in Harlem.  A seven year old black child named Gavin Cato was struck by the car of a Hasidic Jew and killed.  Within hours, anti-Semitic black mobs had killed a rabbinical student named Yankel Rosenbaum.  Sharpton appeared to speak at Cato's funeral, where he excited crowds with anti-Semitic rhetoric, telling those "diamond merchants" to "pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house" to settle the score.  More anti-Semitic mobs erupted, and for three days, local Jews' homes, vehicles, and businesses were vandalized.

Now let's rewind just a bit further, to 1962.  Black nationalist radicals were marching in Harlem to protest against Frank Schiffman, the Jewish owner of the Apollo Theater.  Schiffman planned to open an inexpensive diner "that potentially would threaten the business of a more expensive black-owned eatery."

The protestors "carried anti-Semitic posters and hurled racial epithets, reportedly denouncing Schiffman as a Shylock who wanted to extract a pound of flesh from the black community."  Schiffman petitioned the black community for help, but no black leaders came to his aid, either in solidarity with the mob or in fear of its wrath.

No black leaders came to his defense -- except Jackie Robinson.  Robinson used his syndicated newspaper column to condemn the protestors for their anti-Semitism, comparing their tactics to Nazism.  In his biography written ten years later, Robinson writes, "I was ashamed to see community leaders who were afraid to speak out when blacks were guilty of anti-Semitism.  How could we stand against anti-black prejudice if we were willing to practice or condone a similar intolerance?"

For his criticism, the mobs then turned their anger toward Robinson, even protesting outside a dinner honoring his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  According to The Jewish Daily Forward:

In turn, several mainstream black leaders - including Roy Wilkins, the longtime leader of the NAACP - quickly came to the defense of Robinson and Schiffman.

"In their fight for equal opportunity, Negroes cannot use the slimy tools of anti-Semitism or indulge racism, the very tactics against which we cry out," Wilkins wrote in a telegram to Robinson.  "We join you in your straight statement that this is a matter of principle from which there can be no retreat."

Other leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Philadelphia Tribune publisher Dr. E. Washington Rhodes, also offered their support, according to Robinson. Major League Baseball's first black player also managed to pry a condemnation of anti-Semitism from Lewis Michaeux, owner of Harlem's National Memorial African Bookstore, though Michaeux had sympathized with the marchers and denounced Robinson's initial criticisms.

Soon after, the protests ceased.

One can only imagine how many Jews in 1990s Harlem wish that a hero like Jackie Robinson were there to defend them against militant black racists.

Yes, Jackie Robinson certainly was a "game-changer," and he proved it well beyond the baseball diamond.  Men who've made their livelihood exploiting racial divisions like Al Sharpton has may know the story about how Robinson stood against white racism and broke the color barrier in baseball, and they pillage that legacy for the currency that references to historical white racism provide -- but they have no idea what really made Robinson great. 

Jackie Robinson holds his rightful place in the pantheon of American heroes, and it is important that we remember why.  He taught America that racism -- all racism -- is wrong, and never justified.  He stood proud and strong for what was right -- not because it was politically expedient, or in his best interest, or in the supposed best interest of "blacks" as a collective entity.  He did what he did because it was right, and he had the courage, of the most unique sort, to defend what was right at the risk of personal danger, and without resorting to violence or the incitement to violence.  Rather, he defended what was right by being a better man that those who attacked him.

Jackie Robinson is not merely a symbol of black empowerment, but a symbol of something so much more.  He showed America that this country can be a better place, and that we can be better together, if we stop focusing on the racial divisions between us.  When being considered for the Hall of Fame, he asked to be considered not for his cultural impact, but for his accomplishments on the field.  He did not want to be measured as the first black ball player.  He wanted to simply be measured as a ball player, same as anyone else.

There is power in that lesson, and it is one that America would do well to remember today.  Because had we really learned that lesson, race-mongering anti-Semites like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would be marginalized as the divisive fringe racists they are, rather than relevant voices in the discourse on race relations.  And America would be the better for it.

William Sullivan blogs at and can be followed on Twitter.