Argument: the movie “42” ignores Jackie Robinson’s role in the larger Civil Rights Movement

Peter Drier argues that the new movie 42 fails to properly put Jackie Robinson in a larger context: as part of a larger social movement.

The film portrays baseball’s integration as the tale of two trailblazers—Robinson, the combative athlete and Rickey, the shrewd strategist—battling baseball’s, and society’s, bigotry. But the truth is that it was a political victory brought about by a social protest movement. As an activist himself, Robinson would likely have been disappointed by a film that ignored the centrality of the broader civil rights struggle…

42 is the fourth Hollywood film about Robinson. All of them suffer from what might be called movement myopia. We may prefer our heroes to be rugged individualists, but the reality doesn’t conform to the myth embedded in Hollywood’s version of the Robinson story…

Starting in the 1930s, reporters for African-American papers (especially Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender, Joe Bostic of the People’s Voice in New York, and Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American), and Lester Rodney, sports editor of the Communist paper, the Daily Worker, took the lead in pushing baseball’s establishment to hire black players. They published open letters to owners, polled white managers and players (some of whom were threatened by the prospect of losing their jobs to blacks, but most of whom said that they had no objections to playing with African Americans), brought black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring training centers, and kept the issue before the public. Several white journalists for mainstream papers joined the chorus for baseball integration.

Progressive unions and civil rights groups picketed outside Yankee Stadium the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field in New York City, and Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago. They gathered more than a million signatures on petitions, demanding that baseball tear down the color barrier erected by team owners and Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. In July 1940, the Trade Union Athletic Association held an “End Jim Crow in Baseball” demonstration at the New York World’s Fair. The next year, liberal unions sent a delegation to meet with Landis to demand that major league baseball recruit black players. In December 1943, Paul Robeson, the prominent black actor, singer, and activist, addressed baseball’s owners at their annual winter meeting in New York, urging them to integrate their teams. Under orders from Landis, they ignored Robeson and didn’t ask him a single question…

Robinson recognized that the dismantling of baseball’s color line was a triumph of both a man and a movement. During and after his playing days, he joined the civil rights crusade, speaking out—in speeches, interviews, and his column—against racial injustice. In 1949, testifying before Congress, he said: “I’m not fooled because I’ve had a chance open to very few Negro Americans.”

Fascinating. Robinson can be applauded for his individual efforts and we can also recognize that he was part of a larger movement – it doesn’t have to be one or the other. But, our narratives, now prominently told in biopic movies, love to emphasize the individual. This is part of a larger American issue regarding an inability to recognize and discuss larger social structures, forces, and movements.

Many Americans might assume the Civil Rights Movement begins in the mid-1950s with Brown vs. Board of Education or the actions of Rosa Parks (this is where the Wikipedia article on the subject starts) but things were stirring in Robinson’s day. While baseball was America’s sport (pro football didn’t start its meteoric rise until a decade or so later) and Robinson’s play was influential, there were other efforts going on. In 1948 the military was integrated via an order from President Truman. After World War II, blacks tried to move into better housing, often found in white neighborhoods, but faced serious (sometimes violent) opposition in a number of locations.

I’ve been conflicted about whether I should see this movie as a big baseball fans. Sports movies are a little too mawkish for me and don’t ever really reflect how the game is played. This argument is not helping the movie’s cause…

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