On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball.
Last week, PBS aired a two-part documentary, “Jackie Robinson.”
Like all African Americans, I admire Robinson’s achievements, and dignity and grace in the face of unrelenting racial taunts and threats. I was delighted when I stumbled upon the plaque in Brooklyn Heights noting the place where Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson in 1945.
But somewhere along the way, I developed an inchoate impression the baseball icon had become an “Uncle Tom” after his playing days ended. Ken Burns’ film disabused me of that foolish notion. Robinson was a race-man who advocated for political empowerment:
I’m a black man first, an American second, and then I will support a political party—third.
Robinson was in the tradition of “Radical Republicans.” He understood that playing one-party politics in a two-party system would ensure black folks would not get a fair return on the investment of their political capital.
Robinson also pushed for economic empowerment. In 1964, he co-founded Freedom National Bank in Harlem. The bank later opened a branch in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I grew up in Bed-Stuy. As an emerging race-woman, I opened my first savings account at that branch. Frankly, I don’t remember whether I knew Robinson was associated with Freedom National Bank.
If you missed “Jackie Robinson,” you can watch full episodes online at PBS videos on demand.