ONE 7 • Before Obama: Rickey, Robinson and King

 

Like most liberal Americans, I have awakened every morning since Election Day rubbing my eyes with disbelief about the outcome. Yet the more I hear the phrase “President- elect Barack Obama” the more I get used to it, and somewhere in the great beyond Wesley Branch Rickey and Jack Roosevelt Robinson are also smiling at the news of Obama’s winning the Presidency of the United States.

The example of Rickey hiring an African-American to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and Robinson’s brilliant performance under the most stressful off-field pressures, were the veritable first salvos of the American civil rights movement. A point not lost on the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. who autographed a copy of Stride Towards Freedom (1958), his book about the successful Birmingham, Alabama, bus boycott, to Branch Rickey “in appreciation for your genuine goodwill, your unswerving devotion to the ideals of freedom and justice, and your courageous willingness to make American sports truly American”.

It is far too early to assess what President Obama (just saying the name does bring a frisson of hope to the soul!) will mean for the humanization of belligerent America, and if capitalism with a human face can replace the mean and mindless imperialism of the Bush-Cheney years. Yet surely the pattern for peaceful and principled change was laid down decades ago by Rickey, Robinson and King, all three of whom would have been thrilled that Obama rode to victory as his own man, telling his genuinely multi-racial international story with grace and conviction. “You want people to be real, to be just the way they feel,” Rickey wrote near the end of his life, and although he was a staunch Republican, Rickey would no doubt have delighted in Obama’s eloquent statement that there are no red states and no blue states but one United States of America. The words were almost identical to Rickey’s stirring World War Two War Bond drive speeches in which he urged all Americans to fight the totalitarian Nazis regardless of party, position, or economic standing.

Obama has called for Americans to demonstrate a greater sense of service and sacrifice, ideals that have mobilized many in the younger generation with an energy not seen since the hopeful but brief and tragic presidency of John F. Kennedy. Though neither Rickey nor Robinson lived to see its creation, the Jackie Robinson Foundation stands as a great example of how legacies can be kept alive and expanded. Recently celebrating its 35th anniversary, the Foundation has provided more than 1,300 college scholarships to African-American and Hispanic students from all over the US. The graduation rate of the JRF Scholars is an astounding 97 percent. The class of 2012 will contain the largest number, 83, selected from a pool of nearly 2000 applicants. One recent Robinson Scholar, Marcus Ellison, 23, graduated from New York University after being homeless; he now owns a real estate development company.

“We provide much more than financial assistance,” Foundation President and CEO Della Britton Baeza noted recently. “There is a mentoring program, career guidance, internship, and employment placement.” A 24-hour hotline number is available to all Scholars. One Robinson Scholar, Voltaire Sterling, graduated from Harvard Law School but switched careers and is now a professional actor. He played one of the debaters against Denzel Washington’s team in (2007’s) The Great Debaters, which dramatized the true story of the triumphant 1930s debate team of segregated Wiley College in Texas. Another Robinson Scholar Elaine Steward is a vice-president and club counsel for the Boston Red Sox.

Founded in 1973 by Rachel Robinson (a year after her husband’s death), the Foundation recently moved its New York headquarters to a huge modern office just north of Canal Street in downtown Manhattan. In 2009 a state-of-the-art Jackie Robinson Museum will open. With the simple motto “Education is our pitch”, the Jackie Robinson Foundation sustains the legacy of Martin Luther King, Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and undoubtedly is a success story that President Barack Obama can cite as a pathway to the future.