By Kevin Whitehead
Sharon Robinson’s favorite memory of her father, Major League Baseball legend Jackie Robinson, didn’t involve his experiences on the baseball field. It was the drives they would take to New York together.
“It was just my dad and I,” Robinson said. “I remember he would drive so fast that I would feel like I was on a roller coaster. The day with him was just a simple thing, but it was just me and him.”
Stories like this from her childhood and a depiction of her father’s push for the idea of equality among Americans encompassed Sharon Robinson’s address as the keynote speaker for Rider’s Unity Days on Oct. 17 in the Bart Luedeke Center.
Unity Days aim to celebrate the diversity in Rider’s community and give those involved a chance to reflect on the progress and history of social change.
As a former professor at Yale, Columbia, Howard and Georgetown, Sharon Robinson was happy for the opportunity to speak at Rider.
“I love being around college students because it keeps you vibrant and thinking,” she said. “They challenge you. No matter what field, I’m teaching them a skill, but they’re also defining it themselves. You see a profession you love through different eyes. There’s nothing more wonderful.”
Sharon Robinson has been traveling around the country to promote screenings of the movie 42, which illustrates the challenges her father faced while breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in the 1947. The Brooklyn Dodgers, made the landmark decision to sign an African-American. As a four-lettered player at UCLA, Jackie Robinson had a track record for athletic prowess, but he and other minorities were segregated in and outside the ballpark. As a peaceful protester, Robinson made his presence felt throughout America.
“What’s most important about a big pioneer effort is that pioneers will come after you,” Sharon Robinson told more than 100 faculty, staff and students. “You’re opening the doors for other people.”
Michael Long, author of Beyond Home Plate, Jackie Robinson on Life and Baseball, gave a lecture on “Social Justice Issues in the History of Sports” in Sweigart Auditorium the same day.
“Martin Luther King loved Jackie Robinson,” Long said. “He thought he was a freedom writer before there were freedom writers. King thought he stood on the shoulders of Jackie Robinson. Robinson felt the same way about others, too. So each one in his own way advances racial justice, but only by standing on the shoulders of somebody else.”
While Long compared Jackie Robinson to King, Sharon Robinson saw others involved in social change who had a similar social message.
“I would compare Jackie to Muhammad Ali,” Sharon Robinson said. “And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is someone I see who has gone through athletics and used his celebrity from that to branch off in different ways.”
Sharon Robinson has also explored alternate avenues of facilitating social change within America, especially for its youth. She has worked for MLB for 17 years and extensively with the Revival of Baseball in Inner Cities, or RBI, program. This 23-year-old program started in Los Angeles and has grown to more than 200 cities while affecting about 200,000 male and female participants. The program also provides children an opportunity to participate in a values-based organization centered on Jackie Robinson – Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life.
“We’ve seen young ball players who are drafted and go into the majors,” Sharon Robinson said. “It’s very exciting to see that it is a source of players. It does funnel them in. We also work on personal development. We’ve had some really great stories come out of that.”
Major League Baseball has retired Jackie Robinson’s number and has given him his own day to commemorate an athletic and social maverick who has had a lasting effect on the game of baseball and society.
“It feels incredible to be on the field with the players and having them recognize Jackie Robinson on Jackie Robinson Day,” she said. “It’s fun seeing them all wearing number 42.”
Additional reporting by Kim Leder.