Jesse Jackson

Jackie Robinson Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony Address

delivered 2 March 2005, Washington, D.C.

Audio mp3 of Address


[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio with some editing for clarity]

Mr. President, Reverend Clergy, distinguished leaders of our nation, sister Rachel Robinson:

I want to thank you, Rachel Robinson, the wife of Jackie, and -- and your children, Sharon and David, for allowing me to again speak for the family as I was privileged to do for his transition ceremony upon his passing.

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, integrating and consolidating the white and black baseball leagues in 1947.

Jackie was a trailblazer who made new ways, not a pathfinder who traveled the easier and the convenient way.

He chose the road less traveled. He chose dignity over dollars, freedom over finance. From the ball field his fearless integrity forever altered the political landscape of our nation.

Jackie's athletic feats unlocked doors once held tightly by the glue of race supremacy. He expanded our view from looking at athletes in the world through a keyhole to looking at the world through an open door.

Jackie's skill and Branch Rickey's will. There was never a talent deficit; always an opportunity deficit. [uncertain at 1:34] Those who erected the walls and the barriers, like Branch Rickey, must help to pull them down.

We need some Branch Rickeys to challenge the behavior that hurts the victim and victimizer.  Many have followed Jackie Robinson. Too few have followed Branch Rickey.

After Jackie broke the color line, at last the doors opened. Thus, on both sides growth was unlimited and truth was no longer crushed.

Jackie Robinson, a champion athletic competitor and an heroic freedom fighter. Champions win events between the lines. When champions win, as in the case of his Most Valuable Player in 19471, we see his feat expressed. When champion win, as in the case of catching a line drive off the bat of Eddie Waitkus in Philadelphia in 1950, preventing the winning run. And when he came to bat in the 13th2 inning to hit the game-winning home run -- champions.

When champions win -- stealing home against the Yankees in the world series giving Yogi Berra a permanent fit. When champions win they ride on the people's shoulders.

But champions are limited to the field of play. Heroes operate with their gifts beyond the lines.  Their feats are transformative to a culture, to a people. The people ride on the shoulders of their heroes.

It's David, a champion with a slingshot slaying Goliath, but David, the hero, as king, challenging the politics and protecting its people -- the man after God's own heart.

It's Joe Lewis defeating Max Schmeling when our nation -- when our national ego was at stake. Aryan race supremacy was running amok. His victory pierced the -- the veil of Hitler's propaganda machinery.

It was Sandy Koufax refusing to pitch the first game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. He put nothing above his chief joy, thanking God for delivering his people from slavery.

Jackie is in that rarified air: hero.

He lifted a barrier of culture in 1947. We were in the 338th year of legal race supremacy, which did not end until 1954. He challenged the barriers of law and habits and culture and racism. He did it with the quality of sacrifice and discipline and dignity of the highest order.

He withstood the spikes, the taunts, the black cats, and the nonsupport of teammates, save Pee Wee Reese and his historic act -- heroic act in Louisville3 standing with Jackie.

He withstood the death threats.

By Jackie's stripes the nation experienced healing. He shed blood -- wiping away the wounds of spikes for generations unborn, binding the spike wounds without retaliation for a higher good.

Excellence was a weapon, a spirit of sacrifice for the Dodgers and the people. Excellence was a virtue.

He didn't just change baseball. He irreversibly changed and altered a perverse course of race supremacy. The walls of fear and irrational relations had to come down. He opened the doors.

Major league baseball really began in nineteen fifty -- forty seven. Major league baseball began in 1947. Prior to that there was a white league and a black league. It became "major" in 1947 when everybody could play, when they became one.

But they didn't know what the white hitters were like that never faced Satchel Paige. They didn't know what the white runners were like that never ran on Josh Gibson.

There were two leagues, a white and a black. It became major in 1947. We didn't know how good baseball could be until everybody could play.

His feats opened the door for the NBA, NFL, tennis, golf. All these are fruits from Jackie's seeds.

Blacks and browns, people of color, have done amazingly well on the athletic field since -- in these last 58 years. The lesson to be learned: Whenever the playing field is even, the rules are public, and the goals are clear, we all do well.

1947: Seven years before the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, nine players on the diamond and then nine on the Supreme Court -- what poetry, [uncertain at 6:21] years of legal race supremacy.

Baseball was his platform but not his truest passion. It was one of the sports he excelled at. At UCLA he excelled in football and basketball and baseball and track. His truest passion was the changing of unjust laws that would -- would not allow him to stay in the same hotel as his teammates.  A black seating in sections of the stadium without roofs. He didn't become intoxicated with adulation about himself. He wrote in his book, I Never Had It made: "To be old is to be lonely. We must open the doors for all."    

Jackie, a patriot, was court-martialed in the military, fighting for civil rights and dignity before 1947, but exonerated. In the off season he traveled across the South speaking at church rallies and banquets for free. In Greenville, South Carolina -- my home town -- he could not use a toilet in the airport. So my pastor, Reverend James Hall of the Springfield Baptist Church...held a demonstration at the airport. The protest led to ending discrimination in interstate travel. The same pastor later inspired six classmates and me to to jail [for] trying to use a public library.

All of us could not be professional ballplayers, but thanks be to God, and following Jackie, we can all pursue dignity.

Jackie and Rachel marched with Dr. King in 1963, marching at the Great March. It was a glorious day for me; on my way back to college to play football, rushing from the March, I met Jackie and Rachel at the [Washington] National Airport, as they hurried to catch the plane back to New York. To think -- on my way back to college, to hear Dr. King and to meet Jackie and Rachel -- what a day.

Following his baseball accolades, when he finished playing baseball, baseball had no place for him upon his retirement. He couldn't be counted on to gloss over dignity for dollars. He was not a "window dresser." He disturbed the comfortable. He comforted the disturbed. When he spoke people were on the edge. What's he going to say next, as he -- as he would go dancing off of first base.  

In 1955 his athletic feats ended, but his quest for dignity did -- did not.

Nine years before the public accommodations bill, ten years before the Voting Rights Act. In [19]72, baseball was not going to honor the 25th anniversary of Jackie's entry into baseball.4 So finally, a member of Operation Push, we tested in Chicago and showed the Jackie Robinson film. Major league baseball got the message and honored him in Cincinnati. He said, "thanks." We still do not have a minority third base coach 25 years later. The next year, Tony Pérez became the first third base coach of color.

Jackie Robinson and Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Rockefeller, Republican, felt free to challenge Richard Nixon['s] lack of commitment to civil rights.  Today, the Congress honors the best of his traditions by honoring Jackie Robinson. It holds up an ideal higher than its legislative priorities. It honors Jackie Robinson.

This Sunday, 40 years ago, commemorates Bloody Sunday, when John Lewis and Hosea Williams led demonstrations across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, [Alabama], assaulted by attack dogs and fire hoses and the violence of state troopers swinging clubs.

This year, 40 years ago, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act and decried a promise made years before in 1865, that had been broken, not honored. He indeed talked about proclamation without emancipation.

Forty years later, the extension of the Voting Rights Act is in jeopardy.

Forty years later poverty is expanding. The rich are made more secure, 40 years later.

[The] jail-industrial complex is the number one industry in several key states.

Forty years later, too often we're choosing incarceration over education and rehabilitation.

So Jackie keeps running.

But through it all, Jackie remains a champion; but moreover, the hero, the trailblazer beyond the field.

We thank Jackie for teaching us to get better and not bitter -- for bitterness blinds.

We thank Jackie for showing us you are not who you are called but rather you are who you are.

We thank Jackie, a first-class patriot, a second-class citizen, for not giving up on America.

We thank Jackie for inspiring the left-behind to run faster, for being a light in dark places, and for bringing heat into cold places.

We thank Jackie for affirming that "weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."5

We may not be responsible for being down but must be for getting up. And when we do God is available; the rope of hope. And no matter how deep the hole, how deep the spikes, how mean the humiliation, we can overcome -- because nothing is too hard for God.

We thank Jackie Robinson, a transformative force whose life made America better.

1 In 1947, Robinson won the Major League Baseball inaugural Rookie of the Year Award. In 1949, Robinson won the Major League Baseball Most Valuable Player Award for the National League.

2 On 30 September 1951, Robinson hit the winning home run in the 12th inning against the Philadelphia Phillies. Earlier In the game and playing second base, Robinson's all-in, diving catch of Waitkus' line drive briefly knocked him unconscious.

3 Act of Reese engaging Robinson in conversation on the baseball field. The location is a matter of some dispute, Cincinnati, or Boston.

4 See Dick Young's article and this video brief for additional information concerning this event

5 Psalm 30:5

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