Jackie Robinson (303535)
Jackie Robinson Credit: Image by janeb13 from Pixabay

Fifty years ago this week, Rachel Robinson was making breakfast when she saw her husband Jack running down the hallway toward her. He was just out of the shower, and he wasn’t yet dressed. “So I ran out of the kitchen to meet him because I knew something was very wrong,” Rachel remembers. “And he put his arms around me and said, ‘I love you.’ And he just sank to the floor.”

Felled by a heart attack, ravaged by diabetes, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was only 53 years old.

Since his untimely death, countless articles, books, and films have celebrated Robinson’s barrier-breaking debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. But if we are truly serious about honoring Robinson, we should move beyond that one moment, however historic it was, and remember his lifelong devotion to improving the lives of children and youth, especially impoverished kids of color.

More than 2,500 people, including civil rights leaders, jazz musicians, and politicians, attended his funeral at Riverside Baptist Church in New York City. Rachel had asked for two-thirds of the seats to be available for everyday folks. She had also insisted on reserving a block of tickets for those closest to Jack’s heart, young people. Rachel knew better than anyone that Jack, as she called him, had dedicated much of his short life to securing the welfare of children and youth.

When he was the star running back at UCLA, Robinson mentored Black teens at Scott Methodist Church in Pasadena. During his Hall of Fame baseball career, he counseled kids at the Harlem YMCA and wrote countless letters to youngsters near and far. Many of his adoring young fans mimicked his pigeon-toed stance in the batter’s box.

After baseball, when he became a full-fledged civil rights leader, Robinson led youth marches for integrated schools, cheered on the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham, and raised bail money for students who faced down snarling police dogs and withstood super-charged fire hoses.

At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Robinson proudly marched with his son David by his side. A month later, after four Black girls were murdered in the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Robinson publicly disavowed nonviolence, saying that if the innocent girls had been his children, he would have exploded in violence.

Perhaps the most touching moment of Robinson’s love for children occurred when he donned a white beard and a red suit to play Santa Claus for kids mired in poverty. He wanted to give them hope, he said. 

But Robinson also recognized the limits of charity, and near the end of his life, he lobbied against plans to slash welfare programs that benefitted impoverished children.

No doubt, Robinson was devoted to kids because of his own painful childhood in Pasadena.

Racial segregation thoroughly infected Pasadena. Jack and his friends of color were allowed to swim in the public pool only one day a week. Local white leaders called it “International Day,” insinuating that kids of color weren’t part of the local community. When Robinson and his friends dared to swim in the nearby reservoir, police officers called them the n-word and hauled them to jail at gunpoint.

Fueled by his past, Robinson never stopped fighting for young people.

Just two months before he died, he announced that his new company, the Jackie Robinson Construction Corporation, had plans to build a large apartment complex for low- to moderate-income residents of Brooklyn.

This, at last, was his longtime dream, to build neighborhoods where children at-risk would feel safe and accepted, where they would not have to face the pain and suffering that he had endured as a Black boy in a white world.

Robinson died before the project was completed.

As the black hearse carrying his body traveled to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, it slowly drove past hundreds of children lining the streets near the construction site for the new apartment complex. They had come to pay their respects to their fallen hero. Many of them held their hands over their hearts.

Today, our children are not yet safe. They are political pawns in the “family values” debate among Republicans and Democrats. Both parties ignore the heartbreaking fact that the suicide rate among Black youths alone, whose lives are wrecked by racism and poverty, is at an all-time high.

If we are serious about the importance of Jack Robinson in U.S. history, we should remember his fervent commitment to children and youth, acknowledge our failure to follow in his footsteps, and develop policies and programs that will move all children from suicidal thoughts to sustainable lives marked by racial and economic justice.

Yohuru Williams and Michael G. Long are the co-authors of “Call Him Jack: The Story of Jackie Robinson, Black Freedom Fighter” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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