Here is something that both of my parents gave to me: they taught me that it is wrong to judge another human being by the color of their skin. I grew up with a sense of inclusiveness. My father told me that it was the contents of a man’s heart by which he should be measured. I never knew any other way of looking at the world. I also grew up in all white neighborhoods and went to all white schools, so I couldn’t possibly grasp what it was to be black in America in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
I didn’t meet my first African-American person until I was 18 and had left home. Moving to Los Angeles in 1969 provided me with a much more richly textured life that exercised the inclusiveness with which I was raised, and educated me to the tremendous amount of inequality, which still needed to be made right in our country. And though a lot has changed since my girlhood, I still see the injustices of a white America and a black America all around me. My work with incarcerated women underscored that heavily. Most of my students at the jail were either African-American or Latino women, revisiting the system for the umpteenth time, sentenced by a judge and sentenced by the conditions from which they came.
Yesterday I saw a movie that inspired me–a story of racism in America and the possibility for change. “42” is about Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first black player to be integrated into the major leagues. Until 1947 there was major league baseball and there were the “Negro Leagues.” Like everything in America, life was segregated. The sign on the bathroom door said “Whites Only.” The sign above the drinking fountain said “Whites Only…” an ugly, shameful part of American history.
Branch Rickey was a businessman who owned the Brooklyn Dodgers, who in those days actually played in Brooklyn. He loved the game. Here is what is so moving to me about Branch Rickey: He was a business leader who had a deeply rooted sense of social justice, and he was willing to try to make the world a better place because of it. A business leader with a strong sense of social justice is practically an oxymoron these days. You just don’t see that anymore. As Branch Rickey points out, Jesus tells his followers to “love your neighbor as you would love yourself,” more than any other directive found in scripture. And this inspired him to bring Jackie Robinson to the major leagues.
In 1947, the climate of American was neither kind nor receptive to an African-American playing ball in the major leagues. The major leagues were the exclusivity of whites. Everything was set up to underscore a wrongly perceived inferiority of African-Americans and a wrongly perceived superiority of white people. There was one game where a policeman tried to arrest Jackie Robinson for playing on the same ball field as white people—even though he is a Brooklyn Dodger. Robinson had to leave the game. Back then, that stuff happened. Any association between the two races was held with contempt.
Robinson was called horrible, ugly and demeaning names. But Robinson was not only a great baseball player; he was a great and courageous man. He did not fight back. He couldn’t. Any fight in which he participated would have been construed as his instigation. The press back then was mostly racist and ignorant too. So Robinson became the ultimate peaceful warrior, who suffered great humiliation to further the game of baseball and right the wrong of segregation in sports. Moreover, he suffered great humiliation in order to advance and evolve the hearts and minds of a racist America. He paved the way for a new generation of black athletes and a new mind-set for Americans.
After the movie, my husband and I talked a lot about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey over dinner, and drew the correlation between the hard-fought battle for equal rights for African-Americans and gay marriage rights. At the end of the day it all comes down to human rights. The right as a human being to live your life fully, without being ostracized or excluded because of the color of your skin, your sexual orientation or any other external nuance of nature. We still have a long way to go.
“42” is a movie that I will see again. It’s a reminder of how horrid people can be and how amazing people can be. There were plenty of individuals who supported Jackie Robinson, and were not afraid to stand up for what they believed and Jackie Robinson gave them a reason to stand tall in the light of that truth. 42 was the number on the back of Robinson’s uniform. After seeing the film, that number will serve as touch stone in my life of how important inclusion and compassion are in the grand scheme of things.