Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
I was a few months into my first job after college. I was working as a Public Relations Assistant at The Defiance College in Ohio. It fell to me to make the round trip to Toledo to pick up the man who would be the speaker at a college forum that evening. I was 22. He was in his 60’s. I am white. He was black. I am the only daughter and middle of three children raised by college-educated parents. He was the youngest of five children, raised by a single mother. My father’s family emigrated from Germany in the late 1800’s. My mother’s family emigrated from England in the 1600 and 1700’s.
I was raised in Ohio. Jackie was born in Georgia. His family was part of the mass migration of African-Americans who left the South in droves starting shortly after World War I. When the mass immigration from Europe slowed, Northern industries began recruiting blacks from the South to work on assembly lines and in steel mills. Six million African-Americans migrated to the North and West between 1910 and 1975 (Isabel Wilkerson, Smithsonian, Sept., 2016). Mallie Robinson and her five children were among them. They settled in Pasadena, CA where the children could go to integrated schools when they weren’t chopping and picking cotton.
My parents thought education was important and financed my college degree. Jackie Robinson’s family also thought education was important. Jackie was UCLA’s first student to win varsity letters in four sports. Nonetheless, he had to drop out shortly before graduation due to lack of finances to continue.
During World War II Jackie served as a second lieutenant in the Army. During boot camp at Fort Hood, Texas, he was arrested and court-martialed for refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of a segregated bus. His excellent reputation, combined with the efforts of friends, the NAACP and various black newspapers, shed public light on the injustice. Though he was acquitted of the charges and received an honorable discharge, because he wasn’t white, he wasn’t eligible for the GI Bill.
Throughout his astonishing baseball career he repeatedly dealt with harassment, racial slurs, and threats from opposing teams and his own teammates that they’d boycott if he played.
As I reflect on Jackie’s incredible career and my good fortune in being his chauffeur that evening, the thing that occurs to me is how much our paths in life are determined by our birth certificates. Factors such as where we’re born, what ethnic group is listed on the certificate, and the marital status of our mothers when we’re born all set us on a particular path. For some the path forward is a smooth, paved thoroughfare. There may be a few potholes along the way, but for the most part, it’s pretty smooth traveling. Others journey on the equivalent of dirt roads filled with ruts that wash out easily when it rains.
As I drove back to Defiance with Jackie Robinson the thing that most amazed me was how gracious he was. He’d done incredible things in his career. Other than completing college, I hadn’t done much of anything. He was famous! Only my family and a relatively small circle of friends and colleagues knew me. I’d lived a pretty cushy life compared to his. I thought we should be talking about his many accomplishments, but he spent most of the drive asking me about my life. He quickly put me at ease so that we chatted away the miles as though we were long-time friends instead of two strangers tossed together by virtue of his public speaking engagement.
Here was a man who had plenty of reason to be bitter, angry, discouraged, and resentful. But he wasn’t.
The reality is that some of us start life with a “Collect $200” kind of birth certificate while others start life with the “Go Directly to Jail” variety. None of us have any control whatsoever over the circumstances of our birth.
Those of us born with advantages have a moral obligation to recognize and acknowledge the advantages we do have. The fact that a few Jackie Robinsons in every generation make it off the dirt road onto the smooth highway does not justify our letting these uneven pathways continue. It is time to repair the systems that condemn some to lives of desperation because of information on their birth certificates. There was nothing any of us did to deserve either the advantages or disadvantages with which we begin life.
We may not be able to undo all the wrongs of the world, but we can listen to those who point them out. That’s a good place to start.