“History remembers Jackie Robinson mostly as a myth, not a man. He was the humble ballplayer Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey used to break baseball’s color barrier, the secular saint who turned the other cheek when confronted with racism. White America has preserved this gleaming image of the icon, but the real Jackie Robinson was far angrier than history remembers, and he continued fighting fiercely for African-American rights long after his playing career came to an end.
This is the Robinson who filmmaker Ken Burns—along with daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon—examines in his latest documentary, Jackie Robinson, which airs April 11 and 12 on PBS. Some myths need to be dispelled, especially in the case of a complicated figure like Robinson, whose work as an activist is just as important now as it was 50 years ago. Interviewing everyone from Robinson’s wife, Rachel, to President Barack Obama and the first lady, the Civil War and Baseball director does just that as he explores the misunderstood life of one of America’s greatest civil rights pioneers.
Have you always felt Jackie Robinson was underrated as an activist?
Yes. If you look at it, he represents the beginning of the modern age of the civil rights movement. As we say in the film’s introduction, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, he was “a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom riders.” When he [made his major league debut] on April 15, 1947, there had been a lot of civil rights going on in the 20th century up to that point. But at that moment, Dr. King is still a junior at Morehouse College. Harry Truman hasn’t integrated the military yet. Brown v. Board of Education hasn’t happened. There are not organized sit-ins at lunch counters, although as a teenager Jackie had done that.
Rosa Parks is a decade away from refusing to give up a seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus—but Jackie did that in 1944. That’s what makes him so seminal…”