Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Tuesday 12th December 2017 | Manchester, UK

Jackie Robinson: Athlete to Activist

Jackie Robinson, Wikimedia Commons

Jackie Robinson, Wikimedia Commons

 

Jackie Robinson is a significant figure in African American history. He raised issues of race relations, not only in sport, but in society as a whole by becoming the first African American to play in Major League Baseball, erasing the colour line in the United States’ national pastime.

When the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson in 1947, he became a role model in the fight for equality. Until this point, baseball, much like the majority of American society, was segregated. Robinson encountered several barriers before becoming a member of the Dodgers, including players creating a petition to prevent Robinson becoming their teammate. Some feared white fans would not accept black players and may stop attending games. When Branch Rickey, the Dodgers manager, proposed the idea of signing Robinson to the Major League owners, there was a vote against allowing him to play, fifteen to one. Almost two years after first meeting with Rickey, Robinson was finally permitted to play his first game. As he walked out onto Citi Field on 14 April 1947 he was not just a baseball player, but a civil rights pioneer, becoming an inspiration for African Americans to fight against segregation and racism in the United States. As Robinson became a sports icon, he also became a national hero. His baseball career encouraged people to question America’s principles of racial equality and launched further campaigns for equal rights. As baseball was the nation’s favourite pastime, bringing the issue of race to its stadiums brought it to the forefronts of people’s thoughts.

In 1947, Robinson made headlines throughout the country – becoming the first African American to be on the cover of both Time and Life magazine. Robinson used his position as the most visible black man in America to become a spokesperson for the Civil Rights Movement. Once retired from the game, this became his main priority. In 1957 Robinson sent a telegram to President Eisenhower calling on him to veto the Civil Rights Bill in its current form, as many felt it was too weak, and far from achieving racial equality. His words did not go unheard, and Robinson kept fighting this cause, eventually leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1960 which attempted to resolve some of the limitations of the 1957 Act. Robinson continued pushing for equality and became an NAACP board director. His continued determination can be considered as one of the factors which helped to catalyse the introduction of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which finally saw African Americans guaranteed the same rights as the rest of the population. Robinson did not just erase the colour line in baseball, but strongly contributed to erasing the colour line in American society.

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