Jackie Robinson's Faith and Activism
The legendary baseball player, and other African American athletes of the past, wore their Christianity and political views on their sleeves.
BY: By Tom Krattenmaker
Robinson's Christianity was deep in his heart, if not always on his sleeve. Biographer Arnold Rampersad describes Robinson's religious turning not as a point-in-time conversion in mold of today's popular evangelism, but as a process that began in his youth and accelerated when Robinson as a young man developed a mentor-protégé relationship with a dynamic pastor at his church, Karl Downs. "Downs became a conduit," Rampersad writes, "through which [Robinson's mother's] message of religion and hope finally flowed into Jack's consciousness and was fully accepted there, if on revised terms, as he himself reached manhood. Faith in God then began to register in him as both a mysterious force, beyond his comprehension, and a pragmatic way to negotiate the world. A measure of emotion and spiritual poise such as he had never known at last entered his life."
Robinson's Christian faith, in combination with his determination and political instincts, manifested in his turn-the-other-check method of dealing with the racial taunts heaped upon him by opposing players and fans when he began playing with the Dodgers in 1947. It is important to note that "turning the other cheek," when seen in the context of Jesus' time as well as the politics of the mid-twentieth century, is best understood not merely as an act of passivity but also as a form of defiant nonviolent resistance. Accounts of the history-making, pact-sealing meeting between Robinson and Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey make clear that this crucial turn-the-other-cheek teaching from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount played a critical role in the strategy devised by the two men for dealing with the insults and epithets Robinson would hear on major league diamonds.
After his playing career, Robinson became more directly involved in politics. His involvement with Richard Nixon and the Republican party could give the impression that Robinson was a conservative, but that would be a vast over-simplification of Robinson's politics as well as party dynamics of a half-century ago. Certainly, on the matter of racism, Robinson was anything but a denier and status quo defender. Among his many roles, he was a spokesman for the NAACP; a supporter of and speaker for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; the founder of the Church Fund, which raised money to rebuild black churches razed in retaliation for their roles as centers for civil rights organizing and agitating; and, like Sayers, a board member of Jesse Jackson's Operation Breadbasket.
Today, by contrast with Sayers and Robinson, African American Christian athletes overwhelmingly tend to remain mute on matters political, and on the rare occasions they do reveal themselves, the stripes they bear are usually conservative. Although many express a form of social commitment by working with youths, starting charitable foundations, and pursuing other forms of community service, today there are few instances of black Christian sports stars speaking out on race or other social justice issues, or publically questioning a sports-industrial complex in which very few black secure employment in executive suites and owners boxes despite performing the preponderance of the "labor" in football and basketball.
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