I have never quite understood the hype seen during each presidential inauguration. It just never seemed like that big a deal. On the other hand, while still way over the top, Barack Obama’s swearing in ceremony today was truly historic.
Part of me says; What’s the big deal? Blacks seem fully integrated into American society. Many people are of mixed ethnicity anyway (for example, Tiger Woods is 50% Thai, 25% African American, and the remaining quarter is half Chinese and half Native American). Sure, there are still pockets of segregation, but accusations of discrimination and racism are starting to ring hollow.
Yet, at the same time, one cannot help but think back to only a few years ago when such a seamless integration was impossible to fathom. To see how far we’ve come is something that brings chills. One need only to consider the lives of some of the many heroes in the struggle for civil rights to understand the significance of today.
I thought today would be a good day to talk about a hero of mine, and one of the great figures of the twentieth century, Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson and Delorimier Downs
I am particularly proud to be a Montrealer whenever I think of Jackie Robinson. In a world where blacks could not use the same toilets or ride the same buses as whites, and where the thought of blacks and whites playing baseball together was ridiculed, Dodger general manager, Branch Rickey, decided it was time to integrate blacks into the major leagues. Given the fact that black soldiers were considered to be good enough to fight and die next to their white countrymen in the fight against Naziism, the continued segregation of professional baseball seemed an ultimate hypocrisy and the timing was perfect for a new way of thinking. The great experiment to integrate major league baseball, and by extension to contribute to the integration of American Society, began right here in Montreal. Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers farm team, and their home games were played at Delorimier Downs.
There is nothing like the feeling one gets when standing in a place where history happened. The more one appreciates the history, the greater the feeling. For me, there are very few feelings that compare to what I experience when I stand on the corner of Delorimier and Ontario streets in Montreal. Not much stands at the corner. The former baseball stadium is now a school. On the corner is the backstop from the field along with a plaque in honor of Robinson. A sculpture of Robinson was originally located there but was later moved to the Olympic Stadium. Although it attracts more attention at the Stadium, I can’t help but feel saddened that the original location meant so little to most Montrealers that few of them ever saw the sculpture.
There are so many great versions of the Jackie Robinson story in print that I need not repeat the details here. Suffice it to say that his story, and that of Barack Obama, should not have been so significant. If we lived in a world of respect for the individual, and had blacks not been treated as second class citizens for so long, both their stories would be banal. It is only the generations of intolerance and segregation that made their stories so pivotal. It is too bad that so many people had to suffer before these men could take their rightful, and very normal, place in society.
Today is a day when we need to remember people like Jackie Robinson, and Frederick Douglass, and Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers, and the countless others whose struggle made this day happen. Well done, Barack!
21 Jan 2009