By Charles Hallman
Jackie Robinson’s legacy and life story has been told and retold over the years, but mostly it has been focused on his historical breaking of baseball’s color line after World War II.
“The thing that people don’t know about him [is] that my father was on fire for social justice from the very beginning,” said Sharon Robinson on her father during a recent visit to the Twin Cities during the RBI World Series.
A prime example of this was when Jackie Robinson got court-martialed as an Army officer: “He was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas as a second lieutenant” after graduating from officer training school in 1943, explained his daughter. “When he graduated, they [the Army] didn’t want him to be an officer so they sent him to the middle of nowhere, in the Deep South and Jim Crow.”
One day while riding on a local bus into town, Robinson saw “a light-skinned Black woman, but the bus driver thought she was White,” continued Sharon.
Since he knew her, Robinson sat in the “White” section — the front of the bus. “Not only didn’t he go to the Jim Crow section of the bus, but he sat down next to a ‘White’ woman and was talking to her. The bus driver went ballistic and ordered my father to the back, and my father kept ignoring him and kept on talking [to the woman].
“The bus driver stopped the bus, and he and my father get into this big argument,” said Sharon. The driver then drove to the base police station and demanded that Robinson be arrested on drunk-and-disorderly charges.
“My father didn’t drink. He knew his rights — the rule was that if the bus was still on the Army base, it did not have to follow the Jim Crow laws. And the bus was still on the base, so my father won the case” and his court-martial was overturned as a result.
Jackie Robinson always was a fighter, a trait he inherited from his mother, says Sharon. She “tricked” the segregated housing system into letting her buy a house in a White neighborhood in Pasadena, Calif. by sending a light-skinned cousin to purchase it. “Then [she] moved her Black family into the neighborhood” when Robinson was eight years old, notes her granddaughter.
The Robinson family then endured racial harassment from the neighbors. “They called the police on the kids for anything they did,” said Sharon. Once one of her uncles — Jackie’s brother — got a speeding ticket for “skating too fast.”
Jackie as a youngster once took on a little White girl who yelled racist names at him. “My father yells racist names back at her. [Then] she starts throwing stones at my father, and he throws stones back at her.” He later as a teenager along with several of his friends “was arrested at gunpoint for swimming in the reservoir. The public pool was segregated, and they weren’t allowed to swim in the public pool,” noted Sharon.
Later, it was very hard for her father to put his fiery side on hold when Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Branch Rickey [the Dodgers general manager]…knew that [Robinson] was a fighter, and he didn’t want a humble, quiet person but someone who was on fire because this was a different kind of fight,” said Sharon. “That fight was to hold that in and strike back only with his bat, and stay focused on baseball.”
And Jackie Robinson did that for his first three years in the big leagues: “He gave his word to Rickey not to openly show anger for at least two seasons. The end of that time period, my father was bubbling over with pent-up frustration of not expressing himself. [Then] Branch Rickey said he was on his own, and he could be who he wants to be. My father then started being who he is — the real him, the one who hated injustice.”
The “real” Jackie Robinson “was a man that started fighting for justice” at a young age and kept fighting up until his death in 1972, his daughter declared.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.