Jackie Robinson is rightly celebrated for breaking the color barrier of Major League Baseball and then racking up Hall of Fame stats for a decade while leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to six National League pennants and their first World Series title.
But Jack Robinson, the young man who regularly risked everything to stand up to racism on the streets of Pasadena, in the US Army and in the segregated South, is often forgotten, as is Robinson, who became an integral part of the civil rights movement , led protests, raised funds and wrote newspaper columns in the 1960s.
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Now, Yohuru Williams and Michael G. Long want to introduce this Robinson to intermediate-level readers with “Call Him Jack: The Story of Jackie Robinson, Black Freedom Fighter,” which shows that his transition to “‘Jackie,’ a non-threatening black man, ‘ was just part of a life lived at full blast, always determined to make the world a better and fairer place.
The book devotes a third of its time to Robinson’s adolescence in Southern California and a third of his post-baseball career fighting for civil rights, but only a sixth of its pages is devoted to Robinson’s baseball years (which includes his speaking before Congress about the political Views of Paul Robeson, an opportunity Robinson took to attack the deep-seated racism of American government and society).
Williams, the former chief historian of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and Long, who has written and edited previous books about Robinson, met after both appeared in Ken Burns’ documentary Jackie Robinson.
Long, who is not a baseball fan but was interested in Robinson through his post-baseball civil rights leadership, recently spoke over the phone about what the authors hope to teach the next generation about Robinson. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. How important was Southern California in the creation of Robinson?
What the family fled in Georgia was horrifying, but what happened in Pasadena was no less defining for Jack. He wasn’t a fan of Pasadena—it was a place of segregation; There were police officers who were members of the Ku Klux Klan. [Note: The book includes a 1925 Pasadena Post news story about a Klan member who lost his job as a police officer but who petitioned to be reinstated and was.]
Still, it wasn’t Georgia. Pasadena was a sports country and he attended an integrated school which put him on the track of Pasadena Junior College which put him on the track of UCLA. I don’t think his success would have been possible had they stayed in Georgia.
Q. Why write a Robinson biography for middle school students now?
We didn’t want middle schoolers growing up with the Jackie Robinson we grew up with — the stories centered on 1947, when he was polite and not threatening white America, someone subservient to white bosses.
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We want readers to see someone who constantly straightened his back and demanded first-class citizenship and fought hard for it his whole life. We wanted them to see Robinson as a black freedom fighter.
Robinson has spent much of his life fighting police violence and it’s easy for us to see that Robinson represents the Black Lives Matter movement. We think Robinson’s challenge to racial injustice will really resonate with our younger audiences.
Q. Does writing about someone as popular as Robinson give you protection to speak about what might otherwise be labeled critical race theory?
Yes. This is what Yohuru calls teaching by proximity. By teaching about Robinson, we can meet all of these thorny issues of racial, political, and economic injustice, and the list goes on—you have to address issues like disenfranchisement and poverty to look at Robinson’s life.
Q. The book doesn’t shy away from the racist language it faced. Have you hesitated to put that in a children’s book?
It was so important for us to write an unflinching book to share the pain and suffering Jack felt from hearing the N-word all the time. We wanted readers to feel and remember that Robinson accomplished everything he did, like creating Hall of Fame stats, without ever being isolated from that word. He became who he was under incredible racial pressure. Protecting children from this word that Jack has heard his entire life would do our readers a great injustice – we would be hiding an important part of Jack’s life and assuming they just can’t handle it.
Q. Subsequent superstars like Roberto Clemente and Dick Allen complained of being belittled by the white press, who called them Bob and Richie, respectively. However, Robinson has never publicly opposed the move from Jack to Jackie.
By 1946 he signed baseball as Jack Robinson. From 1947 he took the name Jackie to refer to himself, and his fans used it as a term of endearment.
But the name tag on his office door after he retired from baseball was Jack Robinson.
When we call Jackie “Jack” in the book, he pulls him from 1947 and from the baseball diamond, allowing us to see Jack the Man, the black freedom fighter, instead of Jackie the Hero of 1947. When we call him Calling Jackie, we don’t see him as an adult who fought for first-class citizenship.
Q. You delve into his civil rights work with Martin Luther King Jr. and specifically the student protests he helped lead, but since Robinson started out as a Republican, you also explain his deteriorating relationships with Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater. Were you concerned that politics would feel like ancient history to your readers?
It didn’t stop us for a second because it was so important to Robinson’s life. He only spent 1947-1956 on a baseball diamond, but then he spent 1957-1972 fighting for civil rights and political equality. It was important to convey this to young readers.
Q. He also transitioned from outright opposition to Malcolm X to embracing some of Malcolm’s views – although Malcolm himself had changed dramatically in his final years – and defending the Black Panthers.
He developed his views on Malcolm X. He was always opposed to segregation and the use of violence in the civil rights movement, but he believed in the need to defend himself and spoke about it more openly after Malcolm died. I think he’s become more militant on this point. That’s why he defended the Black Panthers. He grew up with Malcolm and became a fan of Malcolm’s outspokenness and impatience as he got older.
Q. I was disappointed that you treated the views and behavior of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam lightly, especially when it came to violence against their own members or former members like Malcolm X.
Put that in. As for the criticism, I’d say that’s fair.
Q. There’s a notable piece at the end where Robinson says, “I wouldn’t raise the flag on the Fourth of July or any other day,” and wrote, “I can’t take it and sing the national anthem…I know that.” I’m a black man in a white world.” Would he be dismayed that such views are still considered radical?
By the end of his life he was genuinely hurt by US democracy and the lack of progress he had hoped for. And he was disgusted with the white backlash, with much of Nixon’s politics. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee, I imagine Jack Robinson would have taken a knee with him.
https://www.ocregister.com/2022/10/05/dodger-great-jackie-robinsons-life-off-the-field-is-explored-in-book-call-him-jack/ The life of Dodger Great Jackie Robinson off the field is explored in the book Call Him Jack – Orange County Register