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Franks: Jackie Robinson broke a long tradition — not just in baseball

By Gary Franks - | Apr 23, 2022

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Gary Franks

This past week we all witnessed the 75th anniversary of the breaking of the color barrier in sports by Jackie Robinson. This was one of the most momentous events in American history as it changed — via sports — the lives of all Americans.

There was a time when Black participation in society was limited. There were times in which America did not look like America. Segregation prevailed. You rarely saw people in buildings and at functions that included people of color, except in menial positions. No, not just in sports, but in every aspect of life.

For Millennials and Gen Z — just imagine an America when by law certain things we take completely for granted were not allowed. For example, some states prohibited the marriage of a Black person to a white person. This law would have been a problem for many prominent people in U.S. who were in a biracial marriage — the ultimate integration.

The next most important aspect was employment. The problem in America was that Black people could not hold certain jobs or occupations, not because of a lack of capability or talent, but just because they were Black.

For nearly all Black students, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were the only opportunity for a college education.

Black people were not welcome at most white colleges in any meaningful numbers. That included the first Black Associate Justice on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, who attended Lincoln University, an HBCU in Pennsylvania.

Due to the admission of Blacks in meaningful numbers in the 1970s, the next two Black people on the Court were from Yale and Harvard.

Next time you go to the post office and see a Black person you should realize that when I was a kid that was not allowed by de facto rules and laws.

Look at a Black police officer and that job too was not something you would see many, if any, Black people holding. Also, it should be remembered that the few Black officers serving often could not arrest a white person.

I could go on.

In my Forrest Gump-like life I lived in Stamford, Connecticut, in walking distance to the home of Jackie Robinson’s widow. I traveled annually with the chairman of my employer, Chesebrough Pond’s, to the Jackie Robinson Foundation Dinner where I got to know Rachael Robinson.

Most Black leaders during Jackie’s time did not express any political affiliation. Jackie Robinson, however, was a visible and outspoken Republican. He supported New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

In fact, his actions sparked a walkout of Black delegates at the Republican Convention in San Francisco in 1964 over the GOP presidential candidate (Sen. Barry Goldwater) being on the fringes of the party for his opposition to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. The vast majority of Republican senators voted overwhelmingly in favor of the bill, much more so than their Democrat Senate counterparts.

When others follow, you are a leader. And Jackie was the ultimate leader. Not only did baseball open itself up to capable Black athletes, but other sports followed, some slower than others.

But it was the beginning of other doors opening for Black Americans as well. Years after his baseball career, Jackie went on to become an executive at a major company in New York.

I shudder to think about what could have happened if Jackie had failed. After all, when Black people succeed some still want to shut it down for Black Americans.

Though I was the first Black person from an Ivy League undergraduate school to go on to Congress, just within my time at Yale, four other fellow classmates would follow as members of Congress.

Black Americans at Yale, also from my era, served in prestigious roles, one as a member of a presidential cabinet, another as a Supreme Court Justice, and another as a Fortune 500 chairman and CEO. The list of Black doctors, lawyers and educators is too long to mention. Success. We all have Jackie Robinson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — among others — to thank.

We also have the good and decent American public who recognized our talents and supported our efforts as we enriched America.

As a child my family experienced racism at the highest levels, including being attacked by the Ku Klux Klan when we integrated into a previously all-white community. A giant cross was burned on our lawn, a dog was shot dead in our yard (the KKK thought it was ours), and I removed a dead possum from our mailbox dripping with blood and dropped it into the snow. We got nightly death threats and were happy to have guns in our house for protection.

And yet I was elected six times, largely by that same community to serve on the city council and in Congress. Prior, no Black had ever demonstrated the ability to secure white votes in an overwhelmingly white congressional district (92%). Now there are many Black members of Congress who can make that claim.

We have come a long way. But we must better integrate all levels of employment within America, now.

Where people have good paying jobs there is little to no crime. That is the best remedy to alleviate crime — just a fact.

Gary Franks served three terms as U.S. representative for Connecticut’s 5th District. He was the first Black Republican elected to the House in nearly 60 years and New England’s first Black member of the House. Host: podcast “We Speak Frankly.” Author: “With God, For God, and For Country.” @GaryFranks


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