Jackie Robinson, America’s first African American Major League baseball player, lived in a time when the nation was experiencing many changes, conflicts, and new ideas. His life, and the lives of those around him, mirrored the lives of many Americans at the time, through all the hardships and triumphs. From the rights of African Americans to shifting expectation for women, Jackie Robinson illuminated many of America’s key issues within the twentieth century.
The end of slavery in the south was far, far from the end of the mistreatment of African Americans in America, and Robinson knew this all too well. Following the end of the Civil War and during and after reconstruction, while slavery was no longer legal, white southerners found new ways to demean, mistreat, and profit off of black men and women. Jackie Robinson’s father was originally paid twelve dollars a month for his work on a plantation, and then was able to half crop, meaning that he was able to receive half of the profits he earned by planting and harvesting. Half cropping and things like it were extremely common for African Americans following the Civil War. Black Codes stripped blacks of many freedoms, but perhaps most alarming, it forced blacks to sign annual contracts with white landowners. If they chose not to sign the contract, they were thrown into jail where they could then be hired out without pay; all this essentially amounted to what Robinson describes as a newer, more sophisticated kind of slavery than the kind Mr. Lincoln struck down (Robinson 3). This new slavery was one in which new laws were put into place specifically to bar black Americans from having their say in the government, one in which African Americans were prevented from existing in the same room as whites, and one in which outright violence against blacks was promoted and celebrated. Even as the twentieth century progressed and Jackie Robinson was an officer in the army and was signed and accepted onto an integrated baseball team, he still faced discrimination. While in the army, Robinson played on a football team with white and black players but said, I had practiced with the team, and the first scheduled game was with the University of Missouri.
They made it quite clear to the Army that they would not play a team with a black player on it I said that I had no intention of playing football for a team which, because I was black, would not allow me to play in all the games (Robinson 16-17), and therefore chose to quit. Even after being signed to a major Canadian baseball team in preparation for joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, he faced discrimination. Robinson tells a story about all prejudice he faced in one single trip: A few weeks after [my wedding to Rachel], we were to fly to Daytona Beach, Florida, where I was to report for spring training with the Montreal farm club Upon arrival, I was told to go into the terminal. Rachel waited and waited I discovered we had been bumped from our flight owing to military priorities, so they said But as we argued our rights, the plane took off. Another typical black experience Our next project was to find a hotel where we could wait until we got another flight. The only accommodations were in a filthy, run-down place resembling a flophouse After a short flight [the next day], the plane set down at Pensacola, Florida, for fueling. The manager of the Pensacola Airport told me that we were being bumped again. There wasn’t any explanation this time. They had simply put a white couple in our seats (Robinson 39-40). Robinson was surely put into a lucky position and his talent afforded him some respect in some white people’s eyes, but he very much faced the presiding white attitude at the timeAfrican Americans were less-than and unwanted.
As Jackie Robinson’s wife, Rachel faced the problems many women in her time felt amplified. Many women felt displeased with society’s expectations of them, particularly after World War II. Society told them that they should be content with being housewife and should find fulfillment through raising their children and caring for their husband alone, and that you couldn’t be a fulfilled woman without these things. There was a notion that pursing higher education was unfeminine, and not only thatthere was also an idea that women in college were there to find a man. This was not the case for Rachel. Rachel desired for a career of her own; in fact, she met Jackie Robinson while studying for a degree in nursing. Even while they made plans for marriage, she insisted on finishing her degree before the wedding. She then later went on to get her master’s degree, and teach at Yale University. The dissatisfaction towards societal pressures was a common one, as emphasized in the book Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. The book, written in 1963, includes interviews that show just how displeased some women were with that way of life. Being the wife of a celebrity came with its own set of problems though, as Rachel struggled to find her own identity outside of her husband. As the book says, she did not want to go through her life being known only as Mrs. Jackie Robinson. She has a strong, independent spirit, and she wanted to be accepted as an individual in her own right (Robinson 159). Constantly at work, she would be asked if she was Jackie Robinson’s wife, and she would avoid the answer as much as possible because she wanted, the assurance of her own identity (Robinson 160). She even addressed her husband to tell him, I have a name, too, and there’s nothing wrong with people using it (Robinson 161).
Jackie Robinson shifted a lot of people’s perspectives, but in many ways it was not enough for him, nor was it enough to grant all mistreated people the respect the so badly deserved. He writes, I’m grateful for all the breaks and honors and opportunities I’ve had, but I always believe I won’t have it made until the humblest black kid in the most remote backwards of America has it made (Robinson 75), emphasizing just how important it is to him that the treatment he had been granted is available to all. Certainly by that point there had already been a lot of change for African Americans. But it was still a world where children were forced to go to sup-par schools because of the color of their skin, a world where just walking through the wrong area could quickly become dangerous for a black man, a world where the contents of their character was never worth as much as their heritage in the eyes of white men. Robinson goes on to call out injustices, especially for those who were content to sit with the progress already made: Virtually every time the black stands up like a man to make a protest or tell a truth as he sees it, white folks and some white-minded black folks fry to hush or shame him by singing out that You’ve come a long way’ routine. They fail to say that we’ve still got a long way to go because of the unjust head start the founding fathers of this country had on us and the handicaps they bestowed on the blacks they abducted and enslaved As one of those who has made it,’ I would like to be thought of as an inspiration to our young. But I don’t want them lied to Name them for me.
The examples of blacks who made it.’ For virtually every one you name, I can give you a sordid piece of factual information on how they have been mistreated, humiliated (Robinson 76-77). At the time Robinson wrote this book in 1972, America certainly had made significant progress, especially since he was a young boy and living on a plantation. In 1964, it became illegal to discriminate based on skin color, and just one year later, in 1965, barriers put in place to prevent African Americans from voting were dropped with the Voting Rights Act. But it was more than that law that had to change, it was the culture. Robinson knew this and he called Americans to not be content in the state they were in and to work harder at making sure that all men and women can be looked at and treated with respect.
With his life perfectly situated around the post-Civil War reconstruction, both World Wars, and the Civil Rights movement, Jackie Robinson’s life provide the perfect lens through which to look at social issues and their development. Acting as the figure head for social change in America, he was uniquely positioned to help a lot of Americans, both white and black, see the issues around them differently. Even his wife, Rachel, acted as a role model for the things women could achieve and what they deserved to have. Remembered mostly for baseball, Jackie Robinson’s impact was much, much larger, and he himself was part of an even greater movement.
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