Thursday, May 30, 2013

Confronting Our Past to Forge a Better Future — Reflections on "42"

Recently, our family saw the movie 42, which tells the story of Jackie Robinson, who broke through baseball's "color barrier" with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Despite the language, we felt this was a good movie for our kids to see.  Certainly, 42 reminds us of a rather unpleasant chapter in our history—one some would probably just assume forget about, while others claim they had “nothing to do with.”  But we need to remember the darker aspects of our past, else how can we hope to be better in the future? 

This movie presents us with what we once were as a society, and our kids, need to see that past, so they can learn from our mistakes as they seek to forge a better future for our world. 

Before Branch Rickey made the bold move to bring Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn, baseball, like the rest of society, was divided along racial lines. "Separate but equal" was the law of the land—and the unwritten rule of Major League Baseball and other team sports. It was "normal" and "accepted"—especially if you were white and lived in the South. It was what you knew, what you grew up with, and, in 1947, the average person didn't really question it.

In one poignant scene from the film, a young white boy watches a game with his father. When Jackie Robinson comes to bat, the white fans—including his dad—begin to heckle Jackie and shout racial epithets at him. The boy hesitates at first, but eventually, as if to "fit in" with the guys, decides to join in the derogatory onslaught.

And so the vicious cycle of learned hatred perpetuated. Segregationist views passed from generation to generation as parents passed the language and attitudes of racism to their children. And we hardly gave it a second thought; it was just, "the way things were" in America.

But what Jackie Robinson accomplished on the baseball diamond helped to begin to change all that. The crossing of baseball's "color barrier" was the vanguard for changes that would eventually sweep across the broader post-World War II society leading to the end of segregation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation in the 1960s.

Though his motives were not completely altruistic, in the film, Branch Rickey was portrayed as something of a visionary for his day. He saw a new era was coming for baseball, and he faced the same choice we all face when change confronts us: resist it or embrace it. Deep down, Branch knew in his spirit that the "segregated status quo" in baseball—and in society—was neither sustainable nor moral.

Despite the doubts of friends and family, Branch chose to embrace change. As the film begins, he announces his plan to bring a to bring a black man to the Major League. Branch was a Methodist, a man of principle and deep conviction, who sensed the time had come for an end to division based on race, and set forth to affect change in the one place he could—the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

At one point Jackie asks Branch why he is doing this, and Branch replies that he saw, "something unfair at the heart of the game he loved," and reached a point where he could no longer ignore it.  

Branch knew that whomever he chose to break the "color barrier" would take abuse. They would need to be a strong man in every way—i.e., not just a great athlete but a man of impeccable character who could stand firm in the face of trial. As he said it in the film, "I need a man who has the guts NOT to fight back."  In Robinson, Branch thought he found that man, someone who would have, "the same strength our Savior had—the strength to turn the other cheek."  Jackie Robinson would prove Rickey's hunch right over and over again.   He was willing to, "submerge himself to serve something greater." And the world is a better place because he did.

But as Branch predicted, it was not easy; in fact, at times it was gut-wrenching for Jackie. The film shows the verbal abuse Robinson took from fans opposing players and managers—and even his own teammates. At times, what is being depicted on the screen is hard to watch. It's hard to accept that such racist views were once commonplace. Now, they seem so "wrong," but then they were "normal".

Slavery may have ended in 1863, but in many ways, segregation perpetuated many of the racial divisions in our country.

In one particular scene later in the movie, Jackie and Branch chat about all the abuse Jackie is enduring. After one particularly difficult game where the opposing manager unleashes a barrage of hate-filled vitriol, Jackie is starting to falter and lose heart. He is ready to lash out in anger. Who can blame him, really? Branch tries to encourage him to hang in there. He admits that as a wealthy white man, he doesn't know what Jackie is going through, saying at one point, "You are the one that's living the sermon," and likening Jackie’s struggle to break through the “color barrier” to Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Nevertheless, he pleads with Jackie to remember the "greater good" he is working toward. He offers a number of good arguments, but what seems to have the most impact on Jackie is when Branch tells him that while driving to the stadium today, he saw a white boy pretending to be Jackie. 

My kids didn't understand the significance of this statement. In fact, I'm not even sure I fully "get it." I was born in 1970—and on top of that, I am a white male—so I know very little of what it was like to live under segregation.

But Jackie “gets it;” he has lived the painful reality of "segregation" all his life. In 1947, right after World War II, patriotism was high.  America was “on top of the world,” and claimed to be a great beacon of freedom and democracy.  The problem was that most people seemed to think that freedom was only for those whose skin happened to be white.  The average person was comfortable with team sports being “separate but equal.” 

The notion that a black man would play on the same team as white men made a lot of people fearful and agitated—and, as the film illustrates, human beings can get downright nasty when we’re scared and upset.

So you can see why, given that context, the notion that a little white boy playing baseball in his backyard would imitate the stance and swing of a black athlete would have so much impact.  What Branch shared made Jackie realize that what he was doing was truly making a difference.  It would take time—lots of time—but eventually the scene Branch witnessed would become much more “normal.”

And since then, because Jackie was willing to take a chance, myriad other non-whites have been given a chance to “play ball.” And the game is so much stronger. Robinson’s pioneering risk changed baseball forever—and, in time, changed the world of his day.  The crossing of the "color barrier" in baseball set the stage for broader desegregation in society. To this day baseball remembers what Jackie Robinson did—#42 is the only number "retired" by all Major League teams.  Not only that, the world remembers his courageous actions. We tell our children why he matters—and they continue his legacy.

Flash forward almost 70 years to the present day.  My son Brady is playing baseball right now and having fun on his Little League team.  He loves to practice hitting and pretend he is a baseball player.  The morning after we saw 42, Brady was in the living room, and I overheard him say to his sister: "Look Becca, I'm the brown guy!"

Brady was pretending to be the baseball player he saw depicted in a film, who happened to be an African American.  Skin color was simply a descriptive term for him—nothing more. 

When I saw that scene unfold in my living room, I couldn’t help but think back to Branch and Jackie’s conversation in the movie.  In 1947, the idea that a white boy would emulate a black athlete seemed revolutionary, but now it is much more commonplace.  Today, many of our greatest athletes are non-white—but kids don’t seem to care.  Even our President is African American—voted in by people of all races.  

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey
made history together when Robinson
broke baseball's color barrier in 1947
and played for Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers.
While we still have a long way to go in terms of living up to our ideal of being a nation that offers, “liberty and justice for all,” a movie like 42 is a good and uplifting reminder that we have indeed made progress toward that vision. 

I’d like to think Jackie Robinson looked down on Brady that morning and, as perhaps he has done many times over the last six decades, smiled at yet another little white boy pretending to be him.  Maybe he thought: “This is why the struggle was worth it.”  Then, I imagine Branch Rickey walking up behind him, putting his arm around Jackie, giving a grin, and saying: “Yes son.  My hunch was right.  You were the “right man”—and you done good!” 

And then I imagine another individual standing in the background—unbeknownst to the other two.  He too is a “champion of the underdog,” who broke down “barriers” that divided people wherever he went.  He offered the ultimate example of “submerging himself to serve something else,” when he died on a Roman cross.  He was the human embodiment of what it meant to “have the guts not to fight back.”  And the world was changed because he did it…

The third man is, of course, Jesus, and as he quietly watches a white man and a black man embrace, he is smiling too.  He is happy, because in a moment like this, the Divine dream inches a little closer to coming true. 

This compelling vision of all God’s people playing for “the same team” and working toward the common good was what inspired Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson to do what they did in their own time and place.  That same dream continues to inspire us today, and by God’s grace, what will inspire children for generations to come.

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