An undelivered speech for a shining moment in baseball

By Diane Brown, IU Communications Specialist

Many of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, such as “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” and the famous “I Have a Dream,” are defining moments in American history.

But in a twist of fate, the brilliant orator never delivered one speech he wrote specifically to mark a special night in history.

Ken Burns quotes the speech’s manuscript in the preview of his upcoming PBS documentary on Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major-league baseball.

Next month, the baseball world will pay tribute to Robinson, observing April 15 as the annual Jackie Robinson Day. It was April 15, 1947, when Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, now the Los Angeles Dodgers.

jackie robinson media-headshots-1

Jackie Robinson

PBS is scheduled to air Burns’ four-hour series “Jackie Robinson” April 11 and 12. In a YouTube video preview, Burns calls Robinson “the original civil rights pioneer” and then quotes King: “Jackie Robinson was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

King’s words are from a speech the civil rights activist was to give as the guest speaker at a dinner honoring Robinson on his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Documents from the dinner are archived in the Jackie Robinson Papers at the Library of Congress.

It was July 20, 1962, and Robinson was being feted at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The guest list included 900 people; the menu featured prime rib, pont neuf potatoes, French string beans saute, frozen soufflé le Alaska, brandied cherries Jubilee flambe and petits fours.

The committee orchestrating the event was a who’s who — Harry Belafonte, Ralph Bunche, Howard Cosell, James Farmer, Joe Lewis, Adam Clayton Powell, A. Philip Randolph, Ed Sullivan, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, to name a few.

A telegram expressed King’s apology for his absence: “An important turn of events in Albany, Ga. made it imperative for me to return here immediately.”

This Jackie Robinson comic book is up for auction on March 31, 2016, by Swann Auction Galleries. The lot page is available for viewing on the Swann website. Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

This Jackie Robinson comic book is up for auction on March 31, 2016, by Swann Auction Galleries. The lot page is available for viewing on the Swann website. Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council was part of an alliance calling for the end of all forms of segregation and discrimination in Albany. King would be arrested and jailed twice during protest activities in what became known as the Albany Movement.

Robinson visited Albany, Ga., in August 1962 and helped raise $50,000 to rebuild two churches that had been torched because members were involved in registering black residents to vote.

Robinson was no stranger to the public struggle for equality. He was court-martialed in 1944 for not going to the back of the bus on a military post — a decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus.

IUPUI journalism professor Chris Lamb is the author of the 2004 book “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training.”

Lamb wrote recently of Robinson’s experiences with racism as a professional athlete.

“Much has been written about Robinson’s first game in the major leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947,” Lamb said. “Far less is known about the spring of 1946, when the ballplayer was competing for a spot on the Dodgers’ top farm club (the triple-A Montreal Royals.) Rarely has an athlete found himself under more pressure in such hostile conditions as Robinson did in Florida.”

Chris Lamb

Chris Lamb

Robinson’s first day in practice with the Royals was in Sanford, Fla., on March 17, 1946. Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson started that day at first base, ending 80 years of segregated baseball.

On the second day of practice, the Royals would flee the city when Sanford became literally a “sundown town” — at least for Robinson and pitcher John Wright, the only other African-American Royals player — when residents threatened mob violence if Robinson and Wright were not “out of town by nightfall.”

The team continued spring training in Daytona Beach, where they practiced at Kelly Field, located in the black section of town.

Robinson’s wife, Rachel, was in Florida with Jackie during that eventful training camp.

Rachel Robinson has carried on the fight for equal opportunity, including founding the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which addresses the achievement gap in higher education by providing multiyear scholarship awards and comprehensive mentoring services to minority students. Students in the program have a 98 percent college graduate rate. In addition, 30,000 people around the world annually benefit from the community service required of JRF Scholars.

Rachael Robinson and her daughter, Sharon, traveled to Cuba as guests of President Obama during his historic visit to that country a few days ago. The Robinsons were in the stands as the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team played ball.

That game took place in the same Estadio Latinoamericano (then called El Gran Stadium) where, 69 years ago, Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers held their 1947 spring training camp.

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