Robinson to King to Obama, a combination for progress

August 28, 2008|By DAVID STEELE | DAVID STEELE,david.steele@baltsun.com

Today's date, Aug. 28, links two epic moments in American history and in the progress of African-Americans in this country: The Rev. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in 1963 and Barack Obama's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president tonight. That has been well-documented.

The connection and importance of that date, however, is stronger than even Obama might realize. Aug. 28 is also the date, in 1945, that Jackie Robinson first met Branch Rickey and was told that he was the player chosen to break baseball's color line.

A coincidence, a fluke of the calendar spanning 63 years - but one with tremendous meaning. A straight line can be drawn from Robinson opening the door to the national pastime of a rigidly segregated America, to King voicing the ideals of a fully integrated society on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to the son of a black father running for the highest office in the land.

"I was surprised and unaware, but was delighted by the wonderful coincidences," Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter and educational consultant for Major League Baseball, said through a spokeswoman for the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

Robinson's saga is not one filled with time stamps; it is only recently that baseball has celebrated the date of his major league debut, April 15, 1947. So one likely wouldn't know the specific date of the Rickey-Robinson get-together without combing carefully through a detailed history of Robinson's rise to the majors, such as Baseball's Great Experiment by the late Jules Tygiel, or Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad.

Both books, as well as Robinson's 1972 autobiography, deftly describe the meeting, including Rickey's famous challenge: "I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back." Clearly, they had more than a game at stake.

"Rickey, Robinson and King are linked by this combination of idealism and action, an understanding of historical wrongs and the urgent need to redress them," Rampersad said yesterday in an e-mail. He added that the three "loved America too much to allow its worst strain of injustice to go unchallenged, despite the dangers they faced in doing so, and they challenged it in subtle, peaceful, moral, but also provocative and ultimately even revolutionary ways.

"Now Obama is poised to take those same qualities," he continued, "and infuse them into the office of the president of the United States."

The connection was unknowingly brought full circle at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Monday. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., son of the civil rights leader and King protege (the elder Jackson gave Robinson's eulogy in 1972), told a news conference: "Barack Obama has the capacity to hit. But he is in the situation where he can't hit back, which Jackie Robinson could not do. ... He had to be able to run the bases, even though the crowd was jeering the first African-American on the field."

It was more than just a time-tested sports-politics analogy. It was a genealogy: Jackie Robinson begat Martin Luther King, who begat Barack Obama. The path King cleared for Obama was itself cleared by Robinson.

Their legacies intersect at today's date. This is more than history. It's destiny.

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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