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April 14, 2016

Jackie Robinson Set the Stage

By Kenneth Jacobson

April 15 is the 69th anniversary of the entry of Jackie Robinson into the major leagues. To commemorate that historic event and that historic figure, PBS is running a new two-part documentary  looking at how this grandson of slaves rose from humble origins to integrate Major League Baseball.

In some ways, the story of Robinson and the integration of baseball is a little hard for us to understand in 2016. Society in general has come a long way: the civil rights revolution, the election of an African-American president, and the leading role that African-Americans play in our major American sports. And baseball no longer occupies a unique place as the national pastime that it held in the 1940s.

Jackie_Robinson,_Brooklyn_Dodgers,_1954

Still, in a year where major stories include numbers of cases of unarmed African-Americans killed by police, where the right to vote created by the 1965 Voting Rights Act is under attack, where the school to prison pipeline is in the news, the Jackie Robinson story has much to teach us.

In 1947, baseball was king in America. The fact that baseball had never allowed an African-American to participate in the major leagues was a blot on America’s reputation, but only one of many that characterized the country before the civil rights era.

Robinson was truly the harbinger of change in America.

His breakthrough on April 15, 1947, which was recognized as a huge step forward. It took place seven years before the landmark segregation case Brown vs. Board of Education and 17 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It started a process, which took years to ripen and which still is not over, of righting the great wrong of American history.

The great lesson of the Robinson experience is that while laws have the greatest impact in changing society, culture can set the stage and create a climate for the acceptance of new, more inclusive laws. We’ve seen that in our time with the legalization of gay marriage, which was preceded by a number of years of greater cultural acceptance of lesbian and gay people through television and the internet.

Back then, the emergence of Robinson, the first African-American major leaguer,  who handled  hostile fellow major leaguers and crowds with such grace and strength, to be followed over the next few years of other successful black major leaguers, helped to create a sense that African-Americans deserved to be treated like other Americans in our democratic society. It was not a revolution – it took years for the law to change – but it set the stage for the revolution.

Culture matters. How we teach our children, how the media portray various minorities, how our religious, business and political leaders speak about “the other” have a cumulative affect that culminates in a more equal society.

Nobody better represents this idea than Jackie Robinson.

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July 3, 2014

From the Archives: ADL & the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Part 3

On June 10, 1964, a year after President Kennedy first introduced the Civil Rights Act to the nation in a televised address, a coalition of 44 Democrats and 27 Republicans voted for cloture, which limited further debate and ended the 57-day filibuster of the bill.

ADL had lobbied for the bill in the months prior, including organizing a meeting of 100 Jewish business, professional, and civic leaders from all over the United States, who met in Washington, DC, and urged their home-state Senators to take action towards passage of the bill.

In a press release reacting to the Senate’s vote for cloture, ADL National Chairman Dore Schary stated:

The vote on the cloture rule which now assures passage of the Civil Rights Act is a victory for all who love justice and love an America conceived in liberty. It is a defeat for no one except those who would prevent America from achieving its ultimate dream… For the thousands of civil rights leaders and for the country as a whole, the final passage of the Civil Rights Bill will provide new opportunities, which they dare not squander, to help our Negro citizens achieve a full measure of their rights as Americans.

The Civil Rights Act passed the Senate with a vote of 73-27 on June 19.

On June 21, the same day on which three civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi, the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights was held at Chicago’s Soldier Field. The Anti-Defamation League was among the sponsors of the rally, which featured the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The rally was planned to urge passage by the Senate, but was ultimately anti-climactic, as passage by the House was the imminent. ADL’s Midwest Director A. Abott Rosen described the day:

There was no question of Jewish participation, there were no suspicions on the parts of blacks of Jews or other whites on this glorious day. We didn’t take a head count of the number of blacks and the number of wSigning_of_Civil_Rights_Acthites present in Soldiers Field that day, but to my eye, I would suggest that the group was almost equally divided.

On July 2, the House of Representatives voted by more than a two-thirds margin (289-126) to adopt the Senate-passed version of the Civil Rights Act. That day, President Johnson signed the bill in a nationally broadcast ceremony.

ADL’s National Program Director Oscar Cohen later recalled:

The question arose in ADL circles frequently as to why ADL was so totally involved with the struggle for equal rights for blacks … First, we claimed, that no minority was safe unless all minorities were and prejudice and discrimination could not be cured in our society unless the cure related to all minorities … if civil rights laws were passed, such as fair employment and fair housing laws, they would at one stroke eliminate discrimination against all groups, including Jews.

Today, ADL is help­ing to lead a very large coali­tion work­ing to fight dis­crim­i­na­tion, pro­mote equality, and pro­tect the same vot­ing rights for which civil rights workers Michael Schw­erner, Andrew Good­man, and James Chaney gave their lives. The League is urg­ing broad sup­port for the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (VRAA), which would cre­ate a new for­mula for pre-clearing vot­ing rights changes.

Fifty years later, ADL commemorates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a paramount step towards our core value “to secure justice and fair treatment for all” and reaffirms our dedication to continue the fight in the ongoing struggle for equality.

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July 2, 2014

From the Archives: ADL & the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Part 2

Civil_rights_leaders_WH_meeting_22_June_1963

Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston Civil rights leaders pose with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at a meeting at the White House on 22 June 1963. ADL National Director Benjamin Epstein stands to the right of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy

In January 1964, two months after President Kennedy’s death, ADL released its annual report on Congress and civil rights, declaring that because of President Johnson’s “unmatched knowledge” of Congress, “it is now more possible to pass” the Civil Rights Act that President Kennedy had introduced in a televised speech the previous year.

On January 31 Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in his first public appearance in New York since the death of his brother, addressed the 51st annual meeting of ADL. Senator Kennedy told the audience that the civil rights bill “will pass the House unweakened” and that only a filibuster could stop a Senate majority “ready and willing to vote for it.” Ten days later, the House passed the bill by a vote of 290 to 130 and sent it to the Senate, where it met a filibuster.

Soon after the filibuster began, Senators Abraham Ribicoff and Jacob Javits received ADL’s 1964 Human Rights Award. They spoke about the bill in their acceptance speech during the April 9 ceremony, expressing concern about the “‘so-called white backlash’ on civil rights in the North” and warning that “passage of the Civil Rights Bill would solve no problems unless ‘the ultimate responsibility for civil rights’ is accepted by individual Americans.’”

In late April, ADL National Chairman Dore Schary announced plans to convene a meeting of 120 Jewish business, professional, and civil leaders from all over the United States “to sound an alarm that time was running out” and “to urge that the Bill then under debate be passed without weakening deletions and amendments.” Said Schary of the Washington, DC, event:

“This meeting in the nation’s capital is an all-out effort by a group of leading citizens to aid their country in what they consider to be the most critical moment in one of the gravest crises in the past century. They believe that if the Civil Rights Act is not passed soon, the nation faces dangerous disorder in the coming summer months.”

The group, comprised of judges, municipal officials, performers in the arts, financial and industrial leaders from 30 states, first conferred with Administration and Senate spokesmen, and then called or met with their home-state legislators. The group also visited Arlington National Cemetery to “pay their respects to the memory of President Kennedy and leave a floral spray at the graveside.”

ADL National Director Benjamin R. Epstein later recalled the meeting in Not the Work of a Day, noting its success: “[B]y jiminy, it worked, and it was because it was an intelligent approach to lobbying, a perfectly legitimate way of achieving a purpose in a democratic society.” Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey wrote to say: “I am forever grateful … for the ADL’s visit to Washington on behalf of the Civil Rights Bill. The business leaders who gave of their valuable time … performed an indispensible service. I know from conversations with many Senators that their visits were truly effective.”

To be continued…

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