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Jackie Robinson, the moderate radical [Commentary]

Every year, Major League Baseball honors the extraordinary accomplishments of Jackie Robinson and the integration of modern professional baseball. Active players will on April 15th don Robinson's number 42, retired in 1997, to commemorate his ground-breaking career.

While most know that Robinson was the first black player in the major leagues, few are aware of his courageous efforts off the field. He offers an example that seems much needed today.

Called an "Uncle Tom" by some militants and "too radical" by some moderates, Robinson defied traditional labels. Up until his last breath, he constantly reminded all who would listen that "the right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time."

A Republican who sometimes supported Democratic candidates, Robinson frequently criticized leaders from both parties when they failed to support equal rights initiatives that he embraced. Moreover, Robinson often tangled with allies from the civil rights movement who disagreed with him.

In 1967, he criticized Martin Luther King Jr. for opposing the Vietnam War. Shortly thereafter, he encouraged President Lyndon Johnson to continue his efforts to pass equality legislation despite anti-Vietnam War stances by civil rights leaders. Later that year, he resigned from the NAACP because of its failure to respond to more progressive members. In 1969, Robinson refused to participate in Major League Baseball's Old Timers Game in protest of the league's failure to hire any black managers or executives. In one of his last letters before his death in 1972, Robinson warned President Richard Nixon to listen to the demands of blacks for equal treatment before it was too late.

While America has made a great deal of progress, we continue to grapple with persistent racial disparities that threaten our country's global stature. Robinson's goal of racial equality has not been accomplished. Rates of black poverty and homelessness are twice that of whites. Wealth accumulation for blacks is 1/20th of that of whites. Similar disparities exist for Hispanics. Over the last few years, the gap has only widened. There are numerous causes for this inequality, which can only be addressed if we are willing to talk honestly with one another about the complex intersection of race, history and culture.

Immigration, voting rights and unemployment are just a few of the critical issues at the center of this intersection that must be faced if America is ever to achieve its full potential. Today's partisan gridlock preventing national legislative efforts such as the Dream Act, which would grant educational opportunities for certain illegal immigrants; an updated Voting Rights Act, restoring federal protection against racial discrimination in state election laws; and the American Jobs Act, providing education and training opportunities in areas of high unemployment to address disparities so troubling to Robinson, have allowed the racial divide to grow. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, must be willing to enter a dialogue with ideological opponents, negotiate in good faith, compromise when appropriate, and implement effective bi-partisan solutions if America is ever to become post-racial.

Discussing racial issues across color and ideological lines is not easy. We must recognize that Robinson crossed those difficult divides more often and with more success than almost anyone else. As a baseball player, it was easy for Robinson to identify his allies as they all wore the same uniform. In the civil rights struggle, Robinson often had to forge his own path between competing forces who were frequently in conflict and, occasionally, indifferent or opposed to one or more of Robinson's values.

In navigating the intricacies of today's choices, Robinson's road map is useful. He chose his words carefully, defended his position vigorously, sought justice with a sense of urgency, respected democratic principles, attempted to find common ground even with those who attacked him, apologized when he was wrong and never lost focus on the ultimate goal of equality.

At 53 years old in 1972, Jackie Robinson died much too soon. Too soon to receive his presidential Medal of Freedom, too soon to see his friend Martin Luther King recognized with a national holiday, and too soon to witness the election of the first black president. Yet, Robinson deserves recognition not only for his athletic accomplishments but also for his commitment to justice. The price of a baseball ticket is a nice gesture toward such recognition, but emulating Robinson's approach, as we seek to accomplish his goal, would be the most fitting tribute to this moderate radical.

F. Michael Higginbotham is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and the author of "Ghosts of Jim Crow." (N.Y.U Press 2013). His email address is higginbotham@ubalt.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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