The first words of Jackie Robinson’s biography, “I Never Had It Made,” deftly frame the circumstances of his birth in Cairo, Ga.
“My grandfather was born into slavery, and although my mother and my father, Mallie and Jerry Robinson, lived during an era when physical slavery had been abolished, they also lived in a newer, more sophisticated kind of slavery than the kind Mr. Lincoln struck down.”
That included his father having to confront a plantation owner for the opportunity to become a sharecropper, work that author Michael Long described as keeping the Robinsons “virtually enslaved” in a time and place where Jim Crow laws were prevalent and the Ku Klux Klan “terrorized African Americans with impunity.”
Back in Cairo
Which helps explain what Mallie whispered in Robinson’s ear the day her fifth child was born, 103 years ago last Monday, according to the research of Long, who has written four books on Robinson:
“’Bless you, my boy. For you to survive all this, God will have to keep his eye on you.’”
Six months later, her husband left them, never to be seen or heard from again by the man who would go on to become one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century and a civil-rights icon.
That led to Mallie essentially escaping with her children on what she later called a “Freedom Train” to a new life in California with her brother.
“Under the veil of darkness,” as Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick said in his office on Robinson’s birthday, Jan. 31.
Their arrival in Pasadena was no panacea against racial hatred, which the family indeed suffered there as well. But the move provided a reprieve and a fresh beginning, and it set a momentous life in motion from its improbable origin in a town of fewer than 2,000 at the time.
That was long ago and far away, but it echoes to this day.
Because 75 years after Jackie Robinson pried open vast new frontiers by becoming the first Black player in Major League Baseball — as it was defined long before MLB recognized the Negro Leagues as a peer in late 2020 — his days in Cairo are back in the news now.
And, alas, in a hateful way. But also, in such a way that could become profoundly instructive and even galvanizing.
New historic marker
The bullet-riddled desecration of a historic marker honoring his birthplace in Cairo has stirred reassuring outrage, compelled MLB to donate $40,000) to install a new one unveiled last week and led to the vandalized marker being donated to the NLBM.
While Kendrick said the museum still is contemplating how and where it will be displayed, he also knows it will add “fuel” to its celebration planned for April in honor of the man Kendrick says bore the weight of an entire race on his shoulders with the knowledge that “he could not fail.”
Even as they process their best specific approach to this artifact, its significance already resonates with Kendrick as he considers that it had been shot at repeatedly with a concentration of damage around the words “Negro American” and “baseball’s color barrier,” as the New York Times reported.
No matter how much he figures that sort of hate can only come from a “miserable existence” that eats the perpetrator up on the inside, it’s still jarring for him to contemplate how “meticulously thought-out” this was.
Because of his extraordinary sensibilities, though, even now he can provide perspective that we can embrace.
The circumstances, he said, are “tragic in nature” and purely mean-spirited. But having the marker “coming home” to the NLBM, sometime before the planned April 15th celebration, could help make it a vital symbol.
Because as much as the museum on one level is about the rich history of the Negro Leagues, it’s always stood for something more.
Vital to NLBM
Amid the recent years of overtly renewed racial hostility, it has further emerged as a bastion of social justice and civil rights — as reiterated earlier this week by its distinguished addition to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.
Through that discerning lens, the marker speaks to both the history behind it and the here and now of a legend whose path to the Dodgers included a season with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.
“So, we can remind people of the enduring spirit of Jackie Robinson (and) just how much hate and vitriol he faced when he stepped foot on that field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” Kendrick said.
“But it also serves as a way for us to continue to dialogue as part of our efforts to try and bridge the racial divide that sadly seems to be getting wider in our country. (And) ... continue our efforts to try and reinforce the importance of diversity, inclusion and equity as a bridge towards tolerance and respect.”
To begin with, Kendrick said, there has been such an outpouring on social media that he believes it to be indicative of something fundamentally encouraging about human nature.
“So if bringing that defaced marker home serves as a way to hopefully enlighten, and maybe inspire, more people to continually be part of the solution, then that’s always a good thing.”
The stark reminder
Depressing as this development was, among a distressing number of other such markers dedicated to Black Georgians that have been defaced in the last few years, having the marker on display here will make for a poignant, multi-layered response.
It will at once provide a distinct, albeit scarred, form of memorabilia and an affirmation of the mission of a treasured institution that embodies triumph over adversity.
With a twist: This isn’t about yesteryear.
“To some, Jackie Robinson spent too little time in his birth state to be remembered as a Georgian,” the Georgia Historical Society wrote.
“Much of the way Jackie lived his life, however, was a direct result of the adversity his family experienced in Georgia, the way they reacted to those hardships, and because of their tightly-held values they passed down to young Jackie.”
Now that often-overlooked part of Robinson’s story is clear and present. And even if it’s for all the wrong reasons, it’s a part of his journey that can reverberate in a consequential new way through the NLBM.
Vahe Gregorian is a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star.