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The man who changed America - for good

By Donald Gips | 2012-02-14 08:42:06.0

WHAT does it take to bring about lasting change - to persuade people to abandon prejudice and agree to forge a society that is better and fairer to all, for generations to come?

South Africa and the US share a common history of struggle and triumph. We revere the individual heroes who risked everything to end our unjust systems of apartheid and segregation.

While praise naturally falls on the great leaders of the past - Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr - this Black History Month, I'd like to pay tribute to an individual who was neither a political activist nor a politician, a man whose contribution, however, was no less vital to the America's struggle for freedom and equality.

Jackie Robinson was an American baseball player. At the age of 26 he began his professional career playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League, the only professional league black baseball players were able to join.

The year was 1945, and in America, segregation remained a societal norm. Black and white soldiers had not served side by side in World War II, and the Supreme Court's "separate but equal" decision of 1896 still formed the basis of segregated schooling in America.

In baseball, a long-standing "gentleman's agreement" prevented managers in the American and National Leagues from hiring black players. Branch Rickey, manager of New York's Brooklyn Dodgers, decided the time had come for a change. Rickey began sending scouts to the Negro League to search for a player who might be able to join the Dodgers.

Rickey was looking for more than baseball prowess. He needed an individual with, as he put it, "the guts not to fight back" against racial taunts, abuse and threats of violence. If he was to succeed in breaking the colour barrier in baseball, Robinson would have to be able to always control his temper and stay focused on his game.

At their first meeting, Robinson promised Rickey that he would keep his cool no matter what. They both understood the magnitude of attempting to integrate the sport, often called America's "national pastime". More than any other sport, baseball is part of the fabric of daily life in America and a rite of summer for most youth. Changing its racial policy would have a huge effect on other sports as well as society as a whole.

In Robinson's time, thousands of people would turn out at the local ballpark to watch their favourite teams play. People could walk down the streets of Brooklyn, Cincinnati, St Louis, and any other American city, and hear every inning of the games blaring out of everyone's radio.

Rickey planned for Robinson to initially try out for the Dodgers' minor league team, the Montreal Royals. When Robinson showed up for spring training in Florida, he and his wife had to stay in the home of a local black family because the team's hotel would not allow them to book a room.

On the playing field, angry crowds yelled racial epithets whenever Robinson came to bat. Competitors, and even some of his own white teammates, tried to bait him and get him to lash out. Pitchers sometimes threw the ball directly at his head. Robinson and his family received death threats.

Observers marvelled that Robinson could concentrate at all amid such abuse. Robinson's ability to stay true to his goal - to play baseball on a level playing field with whites - and defy the racism around him remains his most extraordinary legacy.

Of his first game with the Royals, he said later: "When I got home, I felt as though I had won some kind of victory. I had a new opinion of the people in the town. I knew, of course, that everyone wasn't pulling for me to make good, but I was sure that the whole world wasn't lined up against me. When I went to sleep, the applause was still ringing in my ears."

Joining the Dodgers in 1947, Robinson thrived in the Major Leagues. In 1949, he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. Robinson's fearlessness on the base path terrorised opponents and delivered some of the most memorable steals of home plate in the game's history.

He stole home 19 times in his career, a major league record. In his 10 seasons with the team, the Dodgers won the National League pennant six times, and in 1955, they beat arch-rivals, the New York Yankees, in the World Series.

Robinson's performance eventually began to win people over. The cheers grew louder. Robinson made possible the careers of later baseball greats such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. The integration of baseball foreshadowed the progress in other spheres of US life that would start to emerge in the 1960s.

Although he was not himself a politician, Robinson used his opportunity to be an agent of change in society. With the integrity simply to do his best and ignore pressure, he persuaded millions that apartness was wrong, and diverse organisations succeed best. His tombstone is inscribed with his favourite motto: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

Some have called Robinson the most important figure of the civil rights era after Martin Luther King Jr. He never organized a boycott, sought political office, or held a rally. But King and other civil rights leaders understood the power of ordinary citizens to bring about durable change.

So did South Africa's own struggle heroes. As Nelson Mandela said to his fellow citizens in his inaugural address: "Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all."

Gips is the US ambassador to South Africa