Why you should care
Because U.S. holidays should recognize true American heroes, not slaveholders and profiteers.
April 15, 1947, is a day etched into the stone of American history and the Civil Rights Movement.
It was more than a year before U.S. President Harry Truman desegregated the U.S. military.
Seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision striking down public school segregation.
Eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus.
Sixteen years before the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
It was the day that Brooklyn Dodger Jack Roosevelt Robinson took to the field against the Boston Braves. At the time, it felt like the Black first baseman was playing against the entire world.
Robinson’s impact did not stop with baseball.
It’s hard to quantify what Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line meant to the game, to the civil rights movement and to generations of African Americans. But it shouldn’t be hard to celebrate it. Each year on April 15, American baseball stadiums celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, but that doesn’t do justice to the scale of Robinson’s accomplishments and life. The trailblazing ballplayer, who would have been 100 this year, changed the course of American history, and Jackie Robinson Day deserves to be a federal holiday, not just a ballpark one.
There’s a power in conformity. Each April 15 when Major League Baseball (MLB) transforms into an ocean of players wearing Robinson’s No. 42, it makes a strong visual statement about honoring history. Robinson’s power was different. From the start, he stuck out like a sore thumb, and he’d started to push on the barriers of segregation and discrimination well before taking the field in Brooklyn. Before he lettered in four sports at UCLA, Robinson was arrested at Pasadena Junior College in the late 1930s for protesting how local police treated one of his teammates. In 1944, more than a decade before Rosa Parks’s landmark act of defiance, Robinson refused to move to the back of a bus in Texas when he was a lieutenant in the Army. He was nearly court-martialed for his actions, but — fortunately for history — he was found not guilty.
“I’m going to do it,” Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey told a colleague over lunch not long after Robinson’s court-martial. “I’m going to bring a Negro to the Brooklyn Dodgers.” But Rickey needed to find someone special for that role. He needed someone whose private life was beyond reproach and, as he famously informed Robinson about confronting the inevitable abuse, a “ballplayer with the guts not to fight back.”
Robinson had those guts — and the courage to carry the burden of history on his broad shoulders despite the rampant physical and verbal abuse he received from fans, opposing players and even his own teammates. Through it all, Robinson continued to play … and play well. He made six All-Star teams, won the National League MVP award and earned a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. It’s easy today when sports and society are relatively integrated to forget just what Robinson’s barrier-breaking act meant. Baseball, like broader American society, was a bastion of White male dominance. But once the color line fell in America’s national pastime, it grew increasingly untenable elsewhere, sparking a chain reaction that carried over to places like Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma.
And Robinson’s impact did not stop with baseball. Even after his playing days were over, he was an outspoken civil rights activist, one willing to use his platform to pressure even presidents to action. As Robinson wrote in a May 1958 letter to President Dwight Eisenhower: “17 million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change. We want to enjoy now the rights we feel we are entitled to as Americans.” He was also a business pioneer, including co-founding the Freedom National Bank in Harlem, which became one of the largest Black-owned banks in the country. Robinson also served as spokesman and director of personnel for the coffee chain Chock Full o’Nuts.
But do such accomplishments warrant a federal holiday? Robinson’s contribution to the civil rights struggle is a complicated one, says David J. Garrow, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of King, Bearing the Cross, and likely does not merit inclusion on an already crowded federal holiday calendar. For example, Robinson was leading fundraisers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at the same time the organization was hostile toward the efforts of King and other civil rights groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Still, the United States has established just 11 permanent federal holidays — other countries like India (21 days) and the Philippines (18) celebrate many more — the last being MLK Day in 1983. And sure, Robinson may have been a ballplayer who shilled for Chock Full o’Nuts. But others whose legacies we celebrate with holidays have far more checkered résumés, such as George Washington, a slaveholder, and Christopher Columbus, a colonialist and slave profiteer.
In his introduction to Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made, the philosopher Cornel West argues that “[m]ore even than either Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War or Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, Jackie Robinson … personified the challenge to a vicious legacy and ideology of White supremacy in American history.”
And as the human symbol of that defining struggle of American history — and the courage to persevere through it — Jackie Robinson deserves to have his day on the calendar. Every April 15, all Americans should have the day off from work or school to file their tax returns, turn on a baseball game and celebrate that spring day in 1947 when one man put on his uniform and spikes and took the field to change his country forever.