By Vernon A. Williams
The road to high levels of success for Black Americans in sports, government, media, education, business, entertainment or any field of endeavor is replete with land mines and detours. Even after forcing acknowledgment of their irrefutable talent and intellect, these individuals are rarely held at the same level of esteem as mediocre white counterparts. Their legacy is too often obliterated.
It has been that way forever and time has not prompted much of a change in the arduous journey of Blacks constantly forced to prove themselves. Despite it all, in the words of Maya Angelou, “… and yet we rise.”
This past weekend, the greatest living golfer made a miraculous return to the links, in the spotlight of the prestigious Masters. Though his finish was disappointing to fans, that he made the cut and competed every day for such a high level event was awe inspiring. Many wondered if Tiger would be ever to play again recreationally after a horrendous accident last year resulted in multiple leg injuries.
The NBA season ends with the aging, injury-riddled Los Angeles Lakers missing the playoffs. But at the ripe old (basketball) age of 37, LeBron James competed for the league lead in scoring, averaging 30 points a game. That’s shooting 52 percent from the field and 76 percent from the free throw line. His 36 percent three-point marksmanship is right around the league average. And the brother is 37.
Capping more than two centuries of exclusion, Ketanji Brown Johnson defied the cynicism, scorn, sexism, racism and contempt of Republican senators to achieve nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even then, two GOP lawmakers from her home state added insult to injury by staging a protest walkout as Democrats and three supportive senators from the other side of the aisle gave her a standing ovation.
While Chicago celebrates the 100th birthday of its first Black Mayor, Harold Washington, Roosevelt University in Chicago announced a scholarship in honor of its famous alum who was once president of the student council. That presidency jump started a political career of 15 years in the Illinois state legislature and two terms in Congress before he assumed the most prominent office in City Hall, constantly battling hostile “machine” politicians.
There is one exception to the rule when it comes to honoring legacy. Not only does Major League Baseball salute Jackie Robinson every April 15 for breaking the sports color barrier, but in a symbol of esteem, every player, coach, umpire and manager plays that day of the season in unison wearing his coveted number “42.” That is the only time you will see it worn in professional baseball.
In an unprecedented move in 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s historic rookie season, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig announced that no player at any level of the game would again be allowed to don the number of the baseball legend.
Twenty five years after that lofty tribute to greatness, it still is moving to most true baseball pundits and social justice advocates to witness this monumental act of respect.
I’ve loved baseball from childhood, ever since going to my first game as a Cub Scout to see Ernie Banks and the Chicago Cubs play the much-heralded San Francisco Giants, led by Hall of Famer Willie Mays, to the dozens of games watched from the bleachers of Comiskey Park cheering for “my” White Sox (unless they were playing “my” Yankees).
Jackie Robinson went through unfathomable abuse on the field but avenged that hostility with his brilliant play. After retirement, he became an advocate for social change, raising the voice his Dodger team management pleaded with him to mute, ignoring constant insults hurled his way by brutal fans or opposing teams.
Seriously ill, Robinson was invited to toss out the ceremonial first pitch of the 1972 World Series at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. Speaking publicly for the last time, his frail voice strengthened long enough to admonish baseball not to rest on its laurels but to hire Black managers. Frank Robinson (no relation) became the first Black manager in baseball three years later.
Jackie Robinson was so much more than a baseball player.
Like Blacks pursuing greatness in 2022, he was forced to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve the unthinkable. Tiger fights haters and naysayers on the fairways, LeBron won’t let media critics dim his shine or silence his outspoken cries for societal change.
Judge Jackson is blazing a path for Black women in law to follow. And Roosevelt University is keeping alive the legacy of Harold Washington.
In the 20th Century, it all started with Jackie Robinson. In the new millennium, Black America best honors him by persistently striving for the highest levels of achievement no matter what the pursuit, and channeling the resolve of “42” believing nothing, absolutely nothing, is impossible.
CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].