With all due respect to the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the fight for civil rights and equality truly began on a national level on April 15th, 1947—the day Jackie Roosevelt Robinson officially debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves.
While he did not record a hit on the stat sheet in terms of baseball that day, for progress with race relations, he began the move towards the gains we see currently in the country.
For the men and women who fought in Europe and the Pacific during World War II only to return home as second-class citizens, he swung for them.
The reason I say this is not because of some documentary I watched, film clips produced by sports television companies or even the many books and articles on the man. My proof is in the family members I had who were alive and recalled so vividly what his debut meant to them.
His presence in the national pastime represented a tangible change in perception. My late aunt, a feisty woman named Cora Wright, would tell me that the day he became a member of the Dodgers, black America became fans of the Dodgers.
Perhaps that is the reason why the short-sighted commentary made by Al Campanis 40 years to the day of his debut about blacks in baseball lacking "the necessities" to work in management resonated so deeply.
The reality was, Dr. King did not become a national figure until 1955. By that time, Robinson's quiet (and then less quiet) dignity had created a figurative beach head in the psyches of many Americans who began to look at black Americans with less generalization.
His production in the face of often unspeakable bigotry and racism completely trivializes the fodder we often see on television in regards to athletes and entertainers today. All of it was done with an implicit promise to Dodger President Branch Rickey that he would not retaliate for the first three years of his career. No matter how blatant the offense.
In an age when people of all descriptions find offense at the most questionable slights, I can not begin to imagine what that must have been like. And in many ways, that dignity served as a model that many black athletes would have to follow: strong, silent and always smiling. When those are not in abundance, I observe many black athletes (and entertainers) being labeled negatively, which speaks to just how much more progress is needed.
To speak about the career Robinson had, you can never forget that baseball was literally his fourth-favorite and best sport. An All-American football player at UCLA, Robinson also excelled in track as well as basketball.
In a purely athletic context, I find it amazing that when people think of multi-sport stars, the names Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Brian Jordan and to a lesser degree Danny Ainge and John Elway are mentioned. All of those players were exceptional (Sanders and Elway being first-ballot Hall of Famers in their main sports), but imagine playing your fourth-best sport, starting at the highest level at 28 years old, and then having a no-doubt Hall of Fame career.
What he did was amazing enough without the accolades. But to be a Rookie of the Year and MVP during a three year period of name calling, physical abuse, death threats and other vicious things just goes beyond the scope of incredulity.
If his life had stopped being about others after he retired in 1957, Robinson would have been remembered as a pioneer. Instead, he became a self-described "race man", working on the board of the NAACP until 1967, marching in the Deep South during the turbulent and violent upheaval of the civil rights movement and becoming the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation while at Chock full o' Nuts.
Although diabetes would slow him down and eventually dim his sight, his fire was never doused. There may have been better black players when Robinson was first chosen by Rickey to play for the Dodgers. Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige were probably superior ball players.
But I fully believe there was no one quite as capable as Jackie Robinson to do what he did beyond the diamond. I can only hope that his achievements do not become a trivial historical footnote the way Black History Month has in America.
Without him, the process of equality and the reshaping for the better of this country does not begin quite the way it did. I may be so bold to say that without him, we might not see Dr. King at all.
Who knows how long it takes for racial progress to take hold if blacks are not galvanized by the sight of Robinson, then Larry Doby, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella having progress in the game America held most dearly?
Progress is not always as linear as some would think. Sometimes the spark has to be self-created. In other times, you need it to be provided.
Jackie Robinson's life and his achievement is not that he was one of the greatest ballplayers that ever lived. It's that he provided that spark to change the way Americans looked upon their country and each other.