Here's to You, Mr. Robinson

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On this date in 1865, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment. The measure outlawing slavery in this country had been voted out of the Senate on April 8, 1864, and with the Civil War winding to its inexorable result, the House finally followed suit.

Ratification in the states, which Abraham Lincoln didn’t live to see, would take the better part of a year. But on December 6, 1865, it became part of the Constitution. The 13th Amendment did not outlaw prejudice, however, or discrimination. It didn’t change everyone’s heart, even in the North. The vote in the House on this date, for example, was far from unanimous. The tally was 119-56.

Much work remained to be done (and remains still). The ranks of these troops would be filled by everyday Americans from all classes and castes. The terrain of the civil rights movement would cover even more territory than the far-flung battlefields of the Civil War. It ranged, as Martin Luther King Jr. told the country, from “Stone Mountain, Georgia… [to] the curvaceous slopes of California.”

One of the movement’s great protagonists, a man born 100 years ago today, made just that journey. Born in Cairo, Georgia, Jackie Robinson made his name on the athletic fields of Pasadena. A track and field prodigy, football star, and U.S. Army veteran, Robinson etched himself into America’s national consciousness with his passionate play and pioneering spirit on the baseball diamond. Upon his death in 1972, the New York Times would note matter-of-factly: “For sociological impact, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was perhaps America’s most significant athlete.”

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In 1929, Mallie Robinson moved her family out of the Deep South to the freer political and cultural atmosphere in Southern California. Her youngest child was a precocious athlete who’d become a high school and college football legend years before most sports fans even knew he played baseball.

“Jackie” Robinson, as he came to be known, broke organized baseball’s color barrier in 1947, and that season was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year. Two years later, he was the Most Valuable Player. Some of his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates were quick to embrace him, others were grudging. No matter: By his skill, industry, and force of will, Jack Robinson became the face of the team. He would lead the beloved “Bums” to six pennants in 10 seasons (losing two others on the final day of the season).

His exploits, and the dignity he maintained in the face of virulent racism, inspired a generation of other African-American athletes. “He meant everything to a black ballplayer,” Elston Howard, the first African-American member of the New York Yankees, said upon Robinson’s death. “He did it for all of us, for Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Maury Wills, myself.”

But just as Jack Robinson’s own athletic talent transcended baseball, so did his influence. “To most black people, Jackie was a man, not a ballplayer,” said Bill Russell, the great Boston Celtics center who became professional basketball’s first black coach. “He did more for baseball than baseball did for him. He was someone that a young black athlete could look up to.”

Fittingly, on this date in 1988, Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead his team to victory in the Super Bowl. Not only lead it, but orchestrate a record-setting performance as the Washington Redskins overwhelmed the Denver Broncos in San Diego.

Near the end of his life, Jack Robinson was pressing Major League Baseball to hire its first black manager. It wouldn’t happen until two years after his death, although the man who broke that barrier, Frank Robinson, invariably credited Jackie.

After retiring, Jackie Robinson was active in politics. He belonged to a generation that still considered the Republican Party the party of Lincoln, and who looked skeptically upon the Democratic Party of George Wallace, Lester Maddox, and Ross Barnett. In 1960, Robinson supported Richard Nixon. In 1968, when Nixon chose Spiro Agnew as his running mate, partly as a sop to Southern and border state voters, Robinson resigned from the staff of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to campaign for Hubert Humphrey.

After that losing campaign, his influence waned. But Robinson’s self-assessment of his political views captured this stalwart of a man perfectly. “When I quit [baseball] and went into the NAACP, the conservatives found me hard to take,” he recalled. “They were men of 80. Their attitude was: Don’t rock the boat. Today, militants find me hard to take. Their attitude is: Burn everything. But I haven’t changed much. The times changed around me.”  

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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