The six-time MLB All-Star and Hall of Famer wasn’t just a pioneering athlete. His effort—and sacrifice—launched a cascade of civil rights advances.
When Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, he not only broke the color barrier in major league baseball. He was signaling to the nation—on one of its biggest stages—that Black Americans would no longer accept second-class status.
“Jackie Robinson gave all of us—not only black athletes, but every black person in this country—a sense of our own strength,” wrote slugger Hank Aaron in his introduction to Robinson’s autobiography I Never Had It Made.
Robinson’s strength was not only as a gifted athlete and fierce competitor who earned Rookie of the Year, MVP and six-time All-Star status. His strength manifested itself as dogged perseverance in the face of a tidal wave of racism—from daily taunts and threats to broad institutional inequities. The pressure took an enormous toll.
Robinson’s athletic brilliance and contributions to history earned all manner of accolades, from Baseball Hall of Fame induction to the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Major League Baseball retiring his number “42” in 1997—a first for any athlete, in any sport. Shortly before the Hall of Fame ceremony, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. paid tribute to Robinson’s pioneering achievements this way: “Back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness that comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
Robinson’s effort—and sacrifice—spurred a cascade of civil rights advances. A year after he integrated pro baseball, Harry Truman ordered the U.S. military desegregated. Six years later, the Supreme Court decided, in Brown v. Board of Education, to desegregate public schools. Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott soon followed. “His courage and bravery played a major role in the history of integration, both on the field and throughout American society,” wrote Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, “and no history of the civil rights movement would be complete without noting Robinson’s major role.”
Jackie Robinson Was Born in Georgia
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born near Cairo, Georgia in 1919, the son of sharecroppers and the grandson of enslaved workers. After Jack’s philandering father abandoned the family, his mother Mallie took her five children and moved with other family members to start a new life in Pasadena, California. Jack, her youngest, wasn’t yet two years old.
In Pasadena, his mother worked as a maid for a white family, one of the few jobs available in the strictly segregated city. Together with her siblings, she bought a five-bedroom house at 121 Pepper Street, where Jack lived until he left home in 1941. For much of his childhood, Jack was cared for by his sister Willa Mae, just two years older, while his mother worked to support the family.
The house had a shady yard with fruit trees, and Mallie grew vegetables and raised chickens, rabbits and more. But with few jobs open to Pasadena’s Black citizens, the family struggled to keep food on the table, especially during the Depression. Despite persistent racism, Mallie gradually won over hostile neighbors trying to run the Robinsons off their block. According to biographer Arnold Rampersad, who was given full access to the Robinson family archive, she instilled in her children “the importance of family, education, optimism, self-discipline and, above all, God.”
A gifted athlete from childhood, Robinson became a dominant figure in Southern California sports. He stood out at Pasadena Junior College, and later at UCLA, as the only student to letter in four sports: football, basketball, baseball and track. He broke the NCAA long jump record in 1940, besting the high mark set by his brother Mack, an outstanding athlete who had earned a silver medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In 1940, Jack also led UCLA’s football team in passing, rushing and scoring.
During his college years, Jack met his future wife, a nursing student named Rachel Annetta Isum. In March 1941, a few months shy of graduation, he left school to help with family finances.
Robinson Had a Rocky Stint in the US Army
After receiving his military draft notice in March 1943, Robinson reported to Fort Riley, Kansas for basic training. After racism initially barred him and other Black recruits from Officer Candidate School—despite their clear eligibility—they were eventually accepted. But his time in the mostly segregated U.S. Army would prove deeply frustrating. It ended not long after an incident near Fort Hood, Texas where, 11 years before Rosa Parks’ historic defiance, Robinson raised a ruckus by refusing to move to the back of a bus. Handcuffed, shackled and put under house arrest, he was ultimately court-martialed for disrespecting and disobeying a superior officer. Acquitted of all charges, he received an honorable discharge in 1944, having reached the rank of second lieutenant.
After a standout season with the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs, batting .345, Robinson was approached a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He said the team’s president, Branch Rickey, wanted to talk to Jack about coming to play for the “Brooklyn Brown Dodgers,” an all-Black team he was starting. But that turned out to be a ruse.
Rickey, who was morally opposed to Jim Crow segregation (and had a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hanging in his office), was determined integrate pro baseball, which had not fielded a Black player since the late 19th century. To that end, he had been scouting Negro League teams for someone with not only the athletic prowess, but with the fortitude and and self-discipline to “turn the other cheek” when faced with the inevitable onslaught of racist taunts and threats.
In their first meeting, Rickey role-played the kind of insults, humiliations and vitriol Robinson would experience. He mimicked hotel clerks and waitresses who would refuse to serve him and channeled opponents who would bean him or spike him. Robinson, who had faced a lifetime of racism with a combination of defiance, pride and seething stoicism, promised Rickey he would keep his composure. On October 23, 1945, he signed an agreement that would change the course of baseball—and the course of the American civil rights movement. He would start by playing on the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ International League farm team.
When Rickey had first interviewed Robinson about joining the Dodgers, one of the first questions he asked was, “Do you have a woman?… You’ll need her.” Before reporting to spring training in the spring of 1946, Jack and Rachel returned to Los Angeles for a big church wedding on February 10. After meeting six years earlier at UCLA and enduring long separations during both wartime and his Negro League season, the two finally wed.
When training camp started in Florida a few weeks later, Rachel was the only player’s wife allowed to attend. With Jack barred from the team’s hotels and restaurants, and constantly in the spotlight, the couple deepened their bond as they together experienced the harsh Jim Crow realities and processed the immense stress. “Rachel’s understanding love,” Jack later recounted, “was a powerful antidote for being taunted by fans, sneered at by fellow-players, and constantly mistreated because of my blackness.” They protected each other as they built their family: Jackie Jr. was born in November of that year, with siblings Sharon (b. 1950) and David (b. 1952) to follow.
After one season with the Royals, where he hit .349, scored 113 runs and stole 40 bases in 124 games, Jackie was called up to the Dodgers in the spring of 1947. Under crushing pressure to represent his race as both an athlete and a paragon of virtue and endurance, Robinson went on to have a banner first season in Brooklyn, being named Rookie of the Year and helping the Dodgers win the National League pennant. Two years later, in 1949, he was named the league’s MVP, having hit .342, stolen 37 bases and batted in a career-high 124 runs.
Known for his explosive speed and prowess at the plate (with a career batting average of .313), Robinson also was a canny bunter and tormented pitchers and infielders by constantly dancing off the base. Over his decade-long career in the majors, he scored 972 runs, made 1,563 hits and stole 200 bases—19 of which were home plate. Robinson earned All-Star status for six consecutive seasons from 1949 through 1954.
Robinson achieved all that while serving as a one-man lightning rod for America’s deep racial strife.
It started in the Dodgers’ clubhouse. In the spring of 1947, a core group of Southern veterans—including Dixie Walker, a hard-hitting fan favorite, and pitcher Kirby Higbe, who claimed to have built up his arm throwing rocks at neighborhood Black kids in his youth—reportedly circulated a petition to keep Robinson off the Brooklyn squad. Team manager Leo Durocher castigated Walker in front of the team, making clear the organization’s stance: “I don’t care if he’s black or yellow or has stripes like a [expletive] zebra, I’m the manager of this team and I say he plays.” The Dodgers traded Higbe that May, and Walker after the 1947 season. In time, Robinson won over white teammates with his grace, humility, sportsmanship, grit and talent.
Around the league, other teams lost no time in expressing their displeasure about a Black player in their midst. Within six weeks of his historic debut, Robinson was hit by pitches six times—according to Rampersad, more than any player in the league had been hit in the entire previous season. Before batting helmets were instituted, Robinson’s rookie-year cap had three protective metal plates sewn inside the lining to protect him from deliberate pitches to the head.
In Philadelphia, team manager Ben Chapman famously unleashed a torrent of brutal racist taunts at the new player, while Philly players pointed bats at him as if they were machine guns. Robinson later called that the moment when he came closest to violating his agreement with Rickey not to lose his composure and retaliate. The behavior was so abhorrent that the city of Philadelphia formally apologized to the Robinson family seven decades later.
The American public, widely divided about integrating nation’s favorite pastime, deluged Robinson with fan mail, hate mail, autograph and appearance requests and death threats. Everyone wanted a piece of Jackie: Politicians wanted to stand in his reflective glow with Black voters. African Americans wanted to bask in his success—and the massive symbol of opportunity it represented. His time off the field was rarely his own. And his safety was never assured.
As a high-profile public figure, Robinson had a hard time not being drawn into the political sphere. Many people were eager to capitalize on his iconic status in the Black community to further their own agendas.
In 1949, the House Un-American Activities Committee called on Robinson to testify before Congress about Black loyalty to the nation. Concerned about communist organizing among minority groups, they wanted him to refute a controversial statement made earlier that year by Black performer and activist Paul Robeson, who had called it “unthinkable” that racially oppressed Blacks would go to war against the Soviet Union.
Despite objections from civil rights leaders and others, Robinson went to Capitol Hill. There, he expressed that Robeson, who he deeply respected, didn’t speak for all African Americans and that he was certain that people of his race would ”do their best to help their country win the war, against Russia or any other enemy that threatened us.” He then used the spotlight to underscore the importance of fighting racial discrimination, saying, “We can win our fight without the communists and we don’t want their help.” After Joseph McCarthy turned HUAC into an overreaching vehicle for Cold War witch hunts, Robinson later expressed regret at accepting the committee’s invitation.
When vice presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon met Robinson in 1952, the two native Southern Californians bonded after Nixon excitedly recounted, in remarkable detail, specific football plays he had seen Robinson make at UCLA. Robinson, a Republican, supported Nixon’s 1960 presidential candidacy against John F. Kennedy. But after his disappointments mounted regarding Nixon’s sincerity over civil rights issues, Robinson went on to support Nelson Rockefeller’s candidacy in 1964 and Hubert Humphrey’s in 1968.
After Baseball, Robinson Split His Time Between Business, Activism and Service
Even before his career with the Dodgers finished, Robinson had many irons in the fire. By the early 1950s, he had begun engaging in business deals and using his fame and influence to advocate for Black Americans politically, socially and economically.
When Robinson left UCLA in 1941, he took a series of jobs focusing on coaching and youth development. It was a lifelong passion he would return to later in his career. In February 1952, while still employed with the Dodgers, Robinson signed a contract with NBC’s flagship New York City TV stations to serve as a vice president and director of community activities. In addition to some on-air duties, his mission was to help develop youth programs in collaboration with groups such as the YMCA, the Police Athletic League, the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Youth Organization.
The private-sector job that seduced Robinson away from baseball for good came from the New York City coffee-shop chain Chock Full O’ Nuts. Known for treating employees well, and hiring from all races, the company offered Robinson the position of vice president in charge of personnel, which give him responsibility for more than 1,000 employees, many Black. His compensation included a $30,000 annual salary, a company car and stock options. He worked there until 1964.
In breaking baseball’s color barrier, Robinson instantly became a national symbol of the pressing need for racial equality. So it was no stretch for him to engage in civil rights activism. In addition to fundraising for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he avidly worked his political connections, calling and writing Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and others to press for concrete action. He became a financial activist as well, starting the Freedom National Bank, the largest black-owned bank in New York State, as well as a company that built low-income housing. The Jackie Robinson Foundation, launched by his widow after her husband’s 1972 death, carried on his commitment to Black youth, offering scholarships, mentoring and leadership training.