Jackie Robinson Made History Nearly 70 Years Ago, But His Story Is Far From Over (Video)
Next week will mark the 69th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s history-making entry into the Major League Baseball organization as the first Black player to ever do so, and a new documentary will serve as a reminder as to why that achievement was so important back in 1947, and why his achievements remain relevant today – perhaps more than ever. Ken Burns – the award-winning filmmaker whose works include the documentary series Jazz and Baseball – is promoting his latest project, a two-part film called Jackie Robinson. Heads of a certain generation may remember watching Burns’ previous ode to baseball, an Emmy Award-winning documentary miniseries which originally aired on PBS in 1994. Of course, Robinson’s story played an integral role in Baseball‘s look at the history of the sport, but his chapter was only an overture to Burns’ latest, and in a new interview with Rolling Stone, it’s clear that the story being told goes far beyond the world of athletics in a way that brings the lessons we are still learning as a society today into perfect view.
With RS writer James Montgomery, Burns takes readers on a historical path that includes his own feelings about Robinson’s impact. He calls Robinson “the moral center” of Baseball and shares that for him, it was important to “promote the mythology as much as the facts.” Introducing Jackie Robinson as “a multigenerational portrait of an African-American man,” Burns is asked about what role, if any, the #BlackLivesMatter era had in his decision to make the film. “[I]t’s completely accidental,” he begins. “If you do history, it resonates with the present…So we made a film about Jackie Robinson, and what’s it about? Driving while black, stop and frisk, Confederate flags, integrated swimming pools, discrimination in housing and hiring.” Those aspects of Robinson’s own personal and professional struggles are what make such a film necessary in the preservation of an honest, unflinching examination of African-American history today.
This film, however, is certainly not the first of Burns’ works to direct a critical eye towards the way Americans have dealt with race. He makes a reference to 2001’s Jazz, a magnum opus which traces the music’s prenatal days and its many, many incarnations throughout the 20th century. Deeply involved in the miniseries was renowned Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, of whom Burns asked his opinion on race in America. As Burns tells Montgomery, “[Wynton Marsalis] said ‘Race is the thing in a mythology that a kingdom needs to be well.’ It’s always there in America. So when Donald Trump has a Birther campaign, that’s a polite way of saying the N-Word. When Scott Walker says he doesn’t know if the president is a Christian, that’s another way of saying the N-Word.” As so much of history does, there is a pattern of repetition which Burns senses acutely, saying “this is going to keep happening. You can beat up an African-American protester at your rally. You can, as the Supreme Court has done, walk back certain aspects of the Voting Rights Act. You find that human nature is just superimposed on itself.”
Burns emphasized his thoughts on race in modern-day American – and why Jackie Robinson is the perfect way to teach us where we’ve been and where we need to be – on last night’s episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, telling his host “for me, the subtheme of American history is race. We were founded on the idea that all men were created equal, but oops! The guy who wrote that owned more than 100 human beings and didn’t see fit in his lifetime to free any one of them.” That hypocrisy is what he feels has set us on a path of constantly having to fight against racism, a fight waged bravely by Robinson but one that did not end with his death in 1972. “What Jackie can teach us now is almost what’s going on [today],” he says. Jackie’s story is talking about “stop and frisk, it’s talking about burning Black churches, it’s talking essentially about Black Lives Matter. So, if we’re curious but are not comfortable today having a courageous conversation about race, let’s look at Jackie Robinson’s life and see how many of the same tropes that are part of our life today.”
With that reality in mind, Jackie Robinson’s story becomes a timely metaphor for contemporary race politics, despite being nearly 70 years old.