“42:” Jackie Robinson and America’s unfinished social agenda

The new movie, “42,” tells the should-be-well-known story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball. For American sports fans of a certain vintage, the breaking of the color line in major league baseball in April 1947 is a familiar story of courage and grace under fire. But for baseball agnostics and for younger generations, the facts–and worse yet, the meaning–of Robinson’s story are already getting lost in the shuffle, only 60+ years down the line.  Sadly, the movie also offers yet another example of how some of the  hard-won social breakthroughs of the 20th century have been allowed to erode–or have never really been completely accomplished at all.

So, “42” comes at an opportune time. Although I’m skeptical–as I have written before–of movies claiming to be “based on a true story,” I didn’t fact-check this one, because it seems to have gotten the basics of the story right: Branch Rickey, who ran the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s, decided to add a black player to his roster–perhaps, as is suggested in the movie, because of a personal hurt he experienced as a child–or perhaps because he recognized that the Negro leagues of the era had exceptional ballplayers whose skills could provide the advantage Rickey needed to win a World Series with his team, and of course, sell more tickets. Legend–and this movie [plus an earlier version made in 1950]–has it that Rickey chose Robinson because he was a speedy base runner with a great bat, and because he seemed to have the grit necessary to withstand the racial hatred that was bound to come his way.

History tells us that Rickey was right, even if the story has been idealized by Hollywood. And, to its credit, “42” doesn’t hold back in depicting the virulent racism that Robinson faced. The “n word,” as we’ve sanitized it in our contemporary, politically correct world, is used abundantly. We hear fans screaming it, players and managers taunting Robinson with it, and even children shouting it out. We even read it in hate mail Robinson received via the Brooklyn Dodgers front office.  Through it all, Robinson holds his temper–publicly–because he knows that to act as an angry black man would be to confirm the racial stereotypes of those who hated him for his color and for his audacity in integrating the white-man’s game.

What I took away from “42” was not just that Branch Rickey was a shrewd baseball man and perhaps a social iconoclast, and not just that Jackie Robinson was a remarkable baseball player and accidental role model who refused to crumple under pressure.

I left the movie theater remembering that, 60 years later, Barack Obama’s quest to integrate the white-man’s White House was a story with many parallels to that of Jackie Robinson. I thought about the many attempts, during the 2012 presidential election, by Republican state legislatures to game the voting system in a way that, essentially, disenfranchised black voters. And a few days later, I read that, in April 2013, the governor of Georgia refused to support the idea of a racially integrated high-school prom in a school district in his state.

How naive of us to think that Jackie Robinson, Brown v. Board of Education, Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights movement, the Voting Rights Act, and the fact of President Barack Obama had settled the race issue in America.

Similarly, other 20th century battles that many of us thought (okay, hoped) were settled are still not done: Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has called Roe v. Wade “settled law.” But even that pronouncement doesn’t put the reproductive rights issue to rest. Workers’ rights and collective bargaining–painstakingly won over many years of the early 20th century–are under fire and are being undone at an alarming pace. And for all of our pride in the progress of women in the U.S., we still haven’t passed an Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution, and the closest we can get to pay equality for women is the baby step of the Lily Ledbetter Act.

It’s sad and disillusioning for a lifelong, card-carrying, bleeding-heart liberal like me. I can only hope that history is cyclical, and that the pendulum will swing back again toward expanded human and civil rights, and  more empathy and generosity of spirit–and that the lessons we should have learned from stories like that of Jackie Robinson won’t be lost forever.