Jackie Robinson

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is threatened at knife-point by his cruel master (Michael Fassbender) in “12 Years a Slave.”

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

As Black History Month draws to a close, The Daily Texan compiled a list of notable films that commemorate black history from a variety of perspectives — and offer important lessons for the future.

The Color Purple

“The Color Purple,” directed by Steven Spielberg, is an emotional drama that features an incredible debut performance from Whoopi Goldberg. Goldberg plays Celie, an African-American woman abused by her cruel and much older husband (Danny Glover). Following the course of Celie’s life, “The Color Purple” explores the intersection of oppression of women and black people in the early 1900s.  

“The Color Purple” provides a compelling view of African-American hardship from a female perspective and affirms that familial bonds transcend both distance and time. 

12 Years a Slave

“12 Years a Slave” tells the harrowing true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. 

“12 Years” benefits from Ejiofor’s soulful performance and Michael Fassbender’s ruthless portrayal as Solomon’s tyrannical master. Directed by Steve McQueen, “12 Years” doesn’t shy away from discomforting images of violence, forcing the audience to confront the
slaves’ suffering. 

“12 Years” is not only a fantastic historical film, but also a resonant, emotional masterpiece.

42

“42” is a well-made tribute to legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who broke the baseball color barrier in 1947 by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first African- American in Major League Baseball. The charismatic Boseman grasps audiences’ attention from the get-go and effortlessly carries the rest of the film. Harrison Ford and Nicole Beharie also appear in memorable supporting roles. 

Director Brian Helgeland recreates Robinson’s struggles against racist baseball players and fans with scenes where Robinson endures racial slurs and physical assaults. Robinson learns that playing well is the most effective method of silencing his attackers.

“42” teaches lessons in resilience and grace under fire.

The Great Debaters

Denzel Washington directs and stars in “The Great Debaters,” a film about black college debate students in the 1930s Jim Crow South. Washington plays the team’s coach, poet Melvin B. Tolson, who leads them to become some of the best debaters in the nation. 

While the film is geared toward a younger audience, it does not shy away from dark moments. In one scene, Tolson and his students stumble upon the lynching of a black man. The debaters’ journey is fraught with peril, which makes their success all the more inspiring.

“The Great Debaters” imparts that educating future generations is one critical element in the fight eradicate racism.

Malcolm X

Director Spike Lee does Malcolm X’s life justice in this moving biopic. Denzel Washington’s performance as a titular character is natural and honest. The film focuses on how Malcolm X dealt with family, friends and his Muslim faith, while illustrating how these forces transformed him from a misguided criminal into a forceful civil rights activist. 

Lee works hard to place the audience in Malcolm X’s shoes and helps the audience understand X’s mind-set.

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947. His career numbers and impact on the game earned him an induction into Cooperstown the first time he was on the ballot. In 1997, 50 years after Robinson changed baseball forever, Major League Baseball retired his number 42 throughout the entire league.

There were 14 players currently wearing 42 when MLB decided to honor Robinson by retiring his number, allowing them to wear it through the end of their career.
In 2013, only one of those 14 are still wearing number 42 on the baseball diamond, Mariano Rivera.

Rivera was signed out of Panama City, Panama by the New York Yankees on February 17,1990 for $3,000. When the Yankees flew him to the states to get started on his professional career, Rivera had never been on an airplane, spoke no English, and by his own account, wasn’t even a pitcher.

He made his major league debut in a start against the Angels on May 23, 1995, giving up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings in a 10-0 Yankees loss. A few weeks later, he was sent right back tot he minors.
Rivera was recalled by the Yankees later that June and would go on to make six more starts that year. His first relief appearance came on August 1, 1995, and no one could have foreseen the greatness that was about to proceed for the next 19 years.

Led by his infamous cutter, Mariano Rivera would start his ascent in the Yankee bullpen, garnering Cy Young votes as the Yankee set-up man in 1996 and finally claiming the closer job in 1997. As the saying goes, the rest was history.

With a week left to go in his career, Rivera is the most dominate reliever in a century of baseball. His 652 saves are better than future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman’s by 51. Rollie Fingers had 341 in his 17 years, Dennis Eckersley had 390 in his 24-year career, and Goose Gossage had 310 career saves, and each of those greats are already  in Cooperstown.

Known as the “Sandman” for his entrance song “Enter Sandman” by Metallica that plays through Yankee Stadium when he comes jogging in from the Yankees bullpen to get the final three outs, Rivera has been a transcendent athlete during his time in the Pinstripes.

He is the only player in Major League Baseball to record the final out in four World Series, doing it in 1998, 1999, 2000, and the 2009. Rivera closed out 16 postseason series, and is the only player to be named Most Valuable Player in a World Series (1999), League Championship Series (2003), and All Star game (2013). Rivera set the standard for closer efficiency in his role at the back of the Yankees bullpen, essentially doing it all with one devastating pitch.

The Yankees are arguably the most polarizing franchise in American sports, but one thing nearly everyone can agree on is a mutual infatuation with Rivera, who did it with class and a smile the entire time.

If Robinson hadn’t done what he did way back in 1947, there is a chance that the greatness of Rivera wouldn’t be a tale that we tell our children for decades to come. Rivera will be the last player to ever wear number 42 for a Major League Baseball team, and I’m sure Robinson couldn’t be more proud, smiling down on his number for the last time in this closing week of 2013.

Rivera may not have impacted the game in the same fashion as Robinson, but his presence will surely never be forgotten, and baseball will miss him. There isn’t a better player, or man, to close the book on number 42 for the last time.

 

Sharon Robinson, daughter of baseball player Jackie Robinson, spoke at the Lyndon B. Johnson library Wednesday evening. Robinson adressed the challenges her father faced as the first African American to play professional baseball, along with the experiences she had with having a nationally recognized father.

Photo Credit: Raveena Bhalara | Daily Texan Staff

Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major league baseball player, was instrumental in bringing an end to segregation in baseball, but also in all of America.

Sharon Robinson, daughter of the late Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey III, grandson of the late Branch Rickey Senior, Robinson’s major league recruiter, spoke yesterday at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library about the role baseball played in society and politics through the cultural legacies of Robinson and Rickey. Sports Illustrated senior editor Kostya Kennedy moderated the discussion.

“Rickey and [my father] came together 65 years ago and started a partnership that was built on incredible trust within a racially-divided United States,” Robinson said.

At that time, baseball was segregated, and African–Americans and whites played in separate leagues, she said. Robinson began playing in the African-American leagues, but was soon chosen by Branch Rickey, a vice president with the Brooklyn Dodgers, to help integrate major league baseball, she said.

Robinson joined the all–white Montreal Royals, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1945. Robinson moved to Florida in 1946 to begin spring training with the Royals, and played his first game on March 17 of that same year, Ricky said.

Robinson said her father made a commitment to play in what was then deemed the “baseball experiment.” Despite continuous racial abuse, Robinson did not fight back and soon made proved his worth on the baseball field, she said.

Texas Program of Sports and Media director, Michael Cramer, said this critical event was at the brink of the modern American Civil Rights Movement.

“This was a rare opportunity to have two witnesses of history talk about their experiences first hand,” he said. “It intrigued me because we don’t see the world like they did in 1947. These are events that happened in our grandparents’ lifetime.”

Jackie Robinson was the first African-American athlete who used his celebrity and accomplishments to branch into other aspects of the Civil Rights movement, his daughter said. Robinson is noted for his achievements within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and his continued voice in social activism.

Robinson said being an athlete did not facilitate her father’s involvement in social activism. Instead, his natural instinct was to become a champion of civil rights, she said.

In order to bridge the social championing of Jackie Robinson to future generations, the Jackie Robinson Foundation was established in 1973 to promote the educational advancement of underrepresented populations. A total of 1,500 students have benefited from the foundation’s services, with a 97 percent graduation rate of scholarship students.

“Education has become such an embedded part of the Jackie Robinson legacy,” Rikey said. “These kids know they are Jackie Robinson scholars and won’t be let down.”

Symbolic of all his achievements, Robinson was placed as the No. 2 most admired man alive in a 1947 Life magazine, Rickey said. Robinson’s success on and off the field ultimately captured the attention of not only black America, but also white America, he said.

Public relations sophomore Meg Weiss heard about the forum in her Sports, Media and the Integration of American Society class and said she subsequently decided to attend.

“Attending this lecture was a privilege and it brought me to the realization that this major event in history happened so recently,” Weiss said. “I felt more of a connection to the story as opposed to reading a textbook, because this historical event is so prevalent.”

Wichita Falls/Graham Stars pitcher Jerry Craft had never been on a road trip with his new team. And after earning a win in his first away game of his short career, Craft was put in a tough spot.

It was Juneteenth 1959 — almost 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was read in Texas — and Craft had asked his teammates where they would be spending the night. His teammates responded with laughter to Craft, or “white boy” as he was referred to, and had to explain that there were not enough rooms available for the black players.

Craft was the only player on the team, which played in the West Texas Colored League, who had the opportunity to spend the night in a hotel room with a bed and a shower.

While most of his teammates were preparing to set up tents or sleep in their cars, Craft chose to join them and sleep in the back of his car, earning the respect of his entire team.

From that moment on, there was a marked difference in the team and how they responded to Jerry as a white pitcher. At first, Craft was referred to simply as “white boy” a term that symbolized the team’s objections to his presence on the team. Throughout the season the progression of Craft’s nickname from simple “white boy” to “our white boy Jerry” showed the progression that the team encountered not only on the field as teammates but in other aspects of life as friends outside of the game.

In 1947, America’s pastime truly became a national sport that could be played by everyone in the nation. However, it took many years of abuse and a strong resistance to change for baseball to truly develop into a sport where race was not a factor.

Jackie Robinson’s debut on April 15 of that year began a long journey toward a true desegregation of baseball. Throughout his career, Robinson met endless abuse both from fans and other ball players with patience and integrity. Many years after the influence that Robinson left on professional baseball, Jerry Craft experienced many of the same prejudices as he became the first white pitcher to play in the West Texas Colored Leagues.

Craft was born in Jacksboro, where he grew up around a family with a hard-nosed work ethic and a deep love of baseball. His father was an experienced outfielder who played on many town teams around the area. Although he was conditioned to follow in his father’s footsteps as an outfielder, Craft developed into an effective pitcher and played on his high school’s baseball team in addition to many semiprofessional town teams in the area. In the late 1950s, Craft went to Texas Tech where he attempted to walk on to the varsity baseball team. Although he did not get a chance to play collegiate baseball, during his first summer home from college, he was given the opportunity to play on a team that taught him more than he could have anticipated.

The Stars were one of many semiprofessional all-black baseball teams in the West Texas area. Carl Sedberry, the manager of the Stars, was instrumental in recruiting Craft as a pitcher for his team. Sedberry knew that he had a phenomenal ball club that was capable of winning but lacked a pitching staff to get the job done. After careful scouting and character evaluation, Craft was invited to play with the Stars at the beginning of the summer of 1959. So deep was the desire to win that the team agreed to allow a white man to join the team.
“We needed a pitcher, and he was a pitcher,” explained Clarence Myles, one of Craft’s teammates. “We were just happy to have him.”

At the start of the season, there was a bit of tension that resulted from the long-held social beliefs of the area. While they were not hostile toward him they were a little wary of his presence on the team.

“My teammates were very [harsh] with me to start with,” Craft recalled. “They didn’t want a white boy on their team.”

It didn’t matter though. They had to deal with it.

But while the Stars allowed Craft to play with them, their opponents were not nearly as accepting of a white ball player in their league. At a majority of the games, Craft was not only the subject of stares and constant mutterings, but was also on the receiving end of elevated ridicule and broken beer bottles being hurled at his head.

The friendships that were made and the things experienced held great significance for everyone involved. But it took a touch of humility and a couple of difficult experiences for the bond between Craft and his black teammates to truly develop.

The defining moment for Craft came during a road trip to Waco. After a difficult loss, Sedberry took the team to an all-black restaurant, a rare treat for a team that was accustomed to money-saving sack lunches. Once the team had ordered, the owner of the restaurant asked Craft to leave indicating that his presence in his diner was making the other patrons uncomfortable. Refusing to abandon their teammate, the rest of the Stars walked out, refusing to eat at an establishment that would not serve white patrons.

Refusal of service was a common occurrence in many white restaurants of the time, but this was the first occasion that Craft had experienced the same prejudice that his black teammates felt a majority of the time. The impact of this moment brought all of the Stars to a shared level — no more were they opposites brought together by a sport, they had experienced discrimination and humiliation together, and Craft finally felt a taste of what it was like to exist in the world that belonged to his teammates.

While the story of Craft and his teammates on the Stars may seem insignificant in the course of history, it held many important lessons and represented the reluctance of the American culture to change. Kathleen Sullivan, who at the time was teaching a class on baseball literature at the University of Texas at Arlington, helped Craft share his story in the book “Our White Boy,” which Craft promoted in the Texas Book Festival earlier this month. Sullivan felt called to write about his unique experiences and hoped that many would learn an important lesson from a complicated time in America’s history.

“Look at those who are different from [yourself] and be open to differences because that’s how you learn,” Sullivan challenges. “They have a lot more to offer you than just hanging out with people who are exactly like you.”

The love that the members of the Stars had for this game had the power to overcome racial barriers and a prejudice that had been engraved in the culture of West Texas for many generations — it had the power to entice change. After everything was said and done, they all agreed on one resounding conclusion: They just wanted to play ball.