Jackie Robinson: Upending the Status Quo

Kostya Kennedy’s biography of Jackie Robinson, one of baseball’s and America’s most important figures, The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson, is incisive, extensively detailed, and distinctive. Read a sample below.

The NAACP began giving the Spingarn Medal in 1915, its sixth year. The medal was created by J. E. Spingarn, then chairman of the NAACP board, to reward “the finest or noblest achievement by a live American Negro in the previous year or years.” (Today: “for the finest achievement of an African-American.”) The committee awards the solid gold medal annually. Ernest Everett Just, a Howard University cellular biologist, received the first Spingarn Medal.

Du Bois won in 1920 and Carver in 1923. Thurgood Marshall in 1946, Mary Bethune Cookman in 1935. Educators, writers, civil rights advocates, scientists, musicians, political leaders, lawyers, historians, actors, activists, and businesses have received the Spingarn Medal. Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and others who shattered boundaries or reached the zenith of their sport never won.

Strong candidates surfaced as the NAACP committee prepared to choose the recipient of the Spingarn Medal for 1956 in the late spring. There was Autherine Lucy, a 26-year-old English instructor who had earned the opportunity to enroll at the University of Alabama as the first black student following a protracted legal battle that lasted three years, standing out. In February, her presence sparked campus unrest; the car she was riding in was attacked with rocks, and a mob surrounded her classroom. Shortly after, the university expelled her in defiance of a court order.

Jackie Robinson
Baseball Hall of Fame
Robinson, Jackie | Baseball Hall of Fame

According to Lucy’s account of the riots, “They stoned me, they cursed me, they burned me in effigy, but they did not discourage me.” Lucy made a commitment to keep fighting until she “and others of [her] race]” had access to education, as is legally required in articles and speeches.

A reader from Detroit wrote to Baltimore’s Afro-American after the Spingarn Award winner was revealed, “For the life of me, I can’t understand how the NAACP could pass up a great and courageous person like Autherine Lucy in making the Spingarn Award.”

Martin Luther King Jr. was a competitor for the Spingarn Medal in that particular year. He had been in the vanguard of the Montgomery bus boycott since December 1955, which was quickly becoming a turning point in the civil rights movement. Already, it was becoming clear that the boycott had effects beyond the boundaries of the city and the state of Alabama. Dr. King declared from the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, “We are engaged in a great struggle, the effects of which will be world-shaking.

Jackie Robinson
The New York Times
69 Years Later, Philadelphia Apologizes to Jackie Robinson – The New York Times

The King’s home had a bomb detonated on the porch, and he and other boycott organizers had received threats, assaults, and arrests, but they had resisted. Ten thousand people attended Dr. King’s speech at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn in March. One reporter noted that this was a welcome “often saved for its favorite heroes, the Dodgers.” By the end of April, more than a dozen bus firms in the South had given up their segregationist practices.

At the age of twenty-seven, Dr. King was setting the direction of the larger movement and articulating the values that would support his leadership in the ensuing ten years. He addressed a sizable crowd in Montgomery by saying, “Let nobody drag you so low as to detest them, even if we are exploited, stomped on, and incarcerated every day.” “We must employ love as a weapon. For those who despise us, we must have empathy and understanding. So many people have been indoctrinated from birth with a hatred for us.


King echoed the philosophy that had led Robinson through his groundbreaking years in baseball in both his sermons and the self-talk he gave to himself at the time. After giving in to rage and indignation during the bus boycott, King reprimanded himself, saying: “You must be willing to suffer the anger of the opponent and yet not return anger.” “You should avoid getting angry. You must maintain composure despite how charged your opponents may be. After earning his degree in systematic theology, he looked to Gandhi as a beacon of hope because, in King’s words, Gandhi “lifted the love ethic of Jesus above mere interactions between individuals to a powerful and effective societal force.”

Even though he and Autherine Lucy both went and spoke at the NAACP’s annual convention, where the Spingarn Medal was customarily bestowed, Dr. King did not receive the award in 1956. He did, however, get it the following year. The Spingarn Medal was mentioned but not actually given during a series of lectures and events in San Francisco in late June (the keynote address was given by the NAACP’s chief attorney Thurgood Marshall, and Marshall and King discussed school segregation policy). Due to his work commitments in Brooklyn, its recipient was unable to attend the convention.

Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson Foundation

Robinson said, “It is without a doubt the thrill of my lifetime,” after learning he had won the Spingarn contest. At his Stamford home, he had answered the call. The garden outside the windows was beginning to bloom in the summer, and plaques honoring his many years of sports success were hanging tightly on a paneled wall. I can’t express how happy I am in enough words.

Roy Wilkins, the general secretary of the NAACP, stated that Robinson’s selection was based on “his exceptional sportsmanship, his pioneering role in breaking the color barrier in organized baseball, and his civic consciousness.” Both within and outside of the Black press, news of Robinson’s honor attracted a lot of interest. The game of baseball! It had become evident how far Robinson’s influence extended beyond the realm of sports.

Jackie Robinson
The Hollywood Reporter

Muriel Richardson of Charlottesville told the Afro-American, “His entry into organized baseball has done more than anything else to bring about understanding in our nation.” Those who have experienced second-class citizenship, the humiliating scars of denial, segregation, discrimination, and those fringe monsters of Jim Crow will understand the suffering that Jackie experienced when she crossed the color line, according to a Montgomery-based columnist for the Alabama Tribune. Jackie is the most deserving American to receive the Spingarn.

Robinson accepted the medal at a December luncheon at the Hotel Roosevelt on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. When Ed Sullivan introduced Robinson, the gathering applauded for a long time. “This accolade means more to me than anything else,” stated Robinson. The NAACP supports human dignity, brotherhood, and fair play.


Thurgood Marshall, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Floyd Patterson were in the audience, and all the tables were full. “With your permission, I’d like to ask my wife to share this distinction with me,” Robinson said. As Rachel rose from the dais, the guests rose from their seats at the tables, and the room rocked with fervent applause as she stood at Jackie’s left side. “The Spingarn award is equally hers and mine,” he remarked. My wife made my profession and achievements possible. She’s why I’m here. ” Jackie Jr., 10, met with NAACP board members.

Robinson, encouraged by the Spingarn Medal, was thinking about his life after baseball and ways to extend and deepen his purpose. His public strength will always come from his baseball accomplishments. MLK Jr. said, “He was a freedom rider before freedom rides.” Robinson’s most searing eloquence was rooted in how he shook the foundation as a young man. Robinson gave the world a deep and lasting message through his play, from the first time he stepped onto a sports field as a Montreal Royal to the last time he left with the Dodgers logo on his chest. 

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