My sermon this morning is inspired by a movie I’ve seen recently. It’s still out in theatres: the movie is called “42,” and it’s based on the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play for a major league baseball team in the United States. His jersey number was 42, which explains the name of the movie. The movie takes place in the years 1946 and 1947, covering the time when Robinson broke the color barrier by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
I have never preached from a movie before, even though I love movies. But as soon as I saw this movie, I began thinking about how powerfully it illustrates the role of white allies in helping Jackie Robinson end segregation in major league baseball. And it’s unusual for movies to portray the role of white allies well (I’ll talk about that in a minute). So I realized I was feeling compelled to preach about this topic and this movie.
As you sense, I’m going to use the movie as the basis of this sermon, just as I might use a story or a particular reading. I don’t claim to have done lots of historical research, and as we know, historical movies edit and exaggerate and simplify the histories they are relating. But my understanding is that the movie is factually accurate ENOUGH for me to draw on it for these purposes. I assume that we have NOT all seen it, so I will explain the story as I go.
Now, it’s not unusual for movies like this to tell the story of racial justice in such a way that white people are the heroes of the story, rather than the heroes being the people of color whose very lives are at risk. Many movies make white characters not just the heroes of the story, but actually the saviors of people of color, who are portrayed as unwilling to stand up for themselves or portrayed as too naïve or not intelligent enough to understand how to combat racism. Movies like “The Help,” “The Blind Side,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Glory,” “Dangerous Minds,” and “Dances with Wolves.” And…it’s okay if you like these movies. I like many of these movies. Many people of color like these movies.
But we also need popular, blockbuster movies where people of color are the heroes and saviors of their own lives, leaders in racial justice work, not followers. We don’t have enough of these stories in film. And because we don’t, white viewers don’t often get to see ourselves depicted as the followers, rather than the leaders.
The irony is that when white people imagine that we should be LEADERS of racial justice work rather than people of color, we perpetuate racism. The assumption that white people lead and people of color follow is a RACIST assumption.
This is what the phrase “white ally” points to. It signifies that people of color are at the CENTER of racial justice work—not at the margins—and that white people are there to be allies in that work. The phrase signifies that white people will do our own work learning about racial justice issues, not waiting for people of color to come do the work of educating us. (When I use the term “we” in this sermon, I mean those of us who identify as being white. I know that not everyone here is white identified.) And the term “white ally” signifies that we will be aware of the power and privilege we are afforded by our skin color, and we’ll use that power and privilege to advance racial justice work.
That’s the very first lesson illustrated in the movie 42. A man named Branch Rickey is one of the central white allies in the story. Branch Rickey was the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and he decided to USE his power and authority to desegregate major league baseball by bringing a black man to the team. This was an intentional act. Rickey planned to sign the first black player with the understanding that after that first man broke the color barrier, more would follow, and baseball would be integrated.
This is the perfect definition of white ally work.
As you see at the top of our order of service, social justice educator, activist, and author Paul Kivel notes that “Being an ally to people of color is an ongoing strategic process in which we [white people] look at our personal and social resources, evaluate the environment we have helped to create, and decide what needs to be done.”
Branch Rickey looked at his personal and social resources—he was president and general manager of a major league baseball team—he evaluated the environment that he helped create—major league baseball was closed to players of color, and by virtue of his silence, he was complicit with racism—and decided what needed to be done. He decided to sign a black player to the team.
But—like a good white ally—he didn’t pick just any player, cross his fingers, and hope it would all work out. He didn’t even pick the BEST player in terms of baseball skill. He looked for a player whose temperament and tenacity would win over all those who were opposed to him. Rickey looked for a man who could withstand the opposition he would face.
In the movie, we hear Rickey mention several reasons that Jackie Robinson is the ideal FIRST black player. Robinson had grown up in Pasadena and had attended UCLA, so he was accustomed to being around white people. He had served in the Army and had gotten into trouble for refusing to sit at the back of an Army bus. He was accustomed to INTEGRATION, not segregation, and he was willing to fight for it.
And Rickey liked that Robinson, like him, was a Methodist. Watching the movie, it’s a moment that makes any of us chuckle with recognition. Wouldn’t we feel good about building an alliance with a fellow Unitarian Universalist? But religious faith was an important motivator for Rickey and an important source of strength for Robinson. This is something the movie alludes to but doesn’t depict explicitly, no doubt because of our current cultural discomfort around religion. But it was important that Robinson would be well supported—by family, by friends, by community, and by faith—to withstand the pressure and scrutiny he would be under.
Yes, Rickey looked for a man who had the experience, the conviction, and the support to withstand the opposition he would face. This is the work of an ally. He intentionally set Robinson up to succeed rather than inadvertently setting him up to fail.
The first time the two men meet, they discuss strategy explicitly. This is a dramatic scene in the movie, and it is informed by Rickey and Robinson’s real-life recollections of this meeting. (In other words, it doesn’t seem to have been TOO exaggerated.) Rickey discusses the need for Robinson to NEVER lash out at those who would taunt him because the news story, then, would always be that Robinson had become violent, that Robinson had been vulgar. Robinson asks, “Are you looking for someone without the guts to fight back?” And Rickey famously replies, “I’m looking for someone with the guts NOT to fight back.”
This strategy is soon put to the test when the Dodgers play the Phillies, and the Phillies team manager spews the most vile kind of verbal abuse every time Robinson comes up to bat. These are shocking and horrible scenes in the movie, and they seem to go on forever. They are hard to watch.
I have never personally been witness to something so overt, but it is a common experience for those of us who are white to witness other white people saying shocking things: racist, homophobic, sexist, hateful. It can be family members, friends, we might be at a dinner party or at the grocery store…or at work…and suddenly something shocking is said, and the saying of it ASSUMES that everyone else in the room is in agreement.
And when these things happen, most of us have no idea what to do or say. If the speaker is someone we know, we don’t know what to say or how to say it in a way that challenges the person while preserving the relationship. And if the speaker is someone we don’t know, we think, “How am I supposed to engage this person I don’t know?” And we often remain silent, waiting for the moment to pass and hoping that person doesn’t say anything like that again.
Similarly, in the movie, Robinson’s teammates don’t know what to do. After all, they had not been very excited about Robinson joining their team. They didn’t consider him a friend. Some of them might have even THOUGHT the ugly things the Phillies manager was saying.
The first time Robinson is up to bat, his teammates do nothing. And Robinson, remembering the strategy that he and Rickey had discussed and agreed upon, knows that HE can do nothing. If he yells at the Phillies manager, people will forget that he was provoked and only remember that a black man lost his temper. And so with no one to oppose him, the Phillies manager continues his insults, unchallenged.
The next time Robinson is up to bat, the verbal abuse continues, and one of Robinson’s Dodger teammates—Eddie Stanky—finally can’t take it anymore and begins yelling back at the Phillies manager. The umpire gets involved to keep the two men from coming to blows. And Robinson, although he is still subject to the manager’s verbal abuse, at least has SOME gratification in knowing that a teammate stood up for him. That hadn’t happened before.
Later in the game, the racial slurs from the manager get worse and worse. Robinson remains silent at the plate, but after his at-bat, he leaves the dugout to have some privacy in the walkway. He shatters his bat against the wall, screaming his anger and frustration. His teammates have had some discomfort in hearing those racial slurs. But Robinson is the one who must bear it, Robinson is the one under attack, Robinson is the one bearing the burden of hope and expectation for an entire segment of society who NEEDS HIM TO SUCCEED. Yes, it was important for Stanky to stand up to the racist manager, but Stanky had nothing at stake. Robinson had everything at stake.
For those of us who would LIKE to do justice work, who would LIKE to be allies to people of color, it can be hard to disrupt racist events and comments when we hear them occurring. It’s hard to speak up and say, “Stop that,” or “I disagree with you.” It’s uncomfortable. We forget that as white people, what we have at stake is our acceptance by others and our personal comfort. What people of color have at stake is everything.
At this moment of crisis in the dugout walkway, one of Robinson’s allies appears, Branch Rickey. He offers him words of support. When Robinson asks him, “Have you ever experienced anything like this?” Rickey replies, “No. No, I haven’t.” This is an important ally moment, the moment of acknowledging that as white people, we can never know what it’s like to be a person of color in the United States. We can sympathize and empathize and study and do as much racial justice work as we can, and it will never be the same as lived experience.
Rickey reminds Robinson that the best way to combat the racist manager is to hit the ball and win the game, which Robinson subsequently does.
The movie goes on to show us more acts by white allies. Robinson’s teammate, Pee Wee Reese, comes to stand next to him on the field before the start of a game, to demonstrate to the hostile crowd that he is Robinson’s friend and supporter. In the locker room, one of Robinson’s teammates tells him he’s a team leader and encourages him to interact more with the team. Small moment after small moment help give Robinson the strength and support he needs to make it through the season.
And none of this help and support detracts from the fact that Robinson is the hero of his own story. He broke the color barrier in baseball. No one else. By the next year, five more black players had entered major league baseball, and the game was integrated.
In 1997, Robinson’s jersey number 42 was retired throughout major league baseball, the first time any jersey number had been retired throughout one of the four major American sports leagues. This means no player in major league baseball can be assigned the number 42; Mariano Rivera is the last player who had the number 42 assigned BEFORE 1997, and he will retire at the end of this season.
And each year, April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day in major league baseball. April 15 was the date of his major league debut, and to celebrate the anniversary, on this day, ALL baseball players where the number 42.
Now, if you’re a baseball fan—and I am—it’s tempting to think of these traditions as the kind of sentimental actions that baseball fans love. And yes, there is some sentimentality. But it’s more than that. It’s more important than that. It’s a way of remembering the history of racism and honoring the man who helped overcome it. As baseball commissioner Bud Selig noted on the first Jackie Robinson Day in 2004: “Jackie brought down the color barrier and ushered in the era in which baseball became the true national pastime….By establishing April 15 as ‘Jackie Robinson Day’ throughout Major League Baseball, we are further ensuring that the incredible contributions and sacrifices he made — for baseball and society — will not be forgotten.”
In this statement, Selig acknowledges that baseball was broken, and that Robinson fixed that brokenness. And each year on April 15, major league baseball commemorates that brokenness and its healing.
It’s a profoundly powerful event, when you think about it. We live in a society that, for the most part, prefers to act as if slavery never happened, as if everyone has equal access to education and other opportunities. And despite this, once a year, baseball stops to remember that baseball was broken, and that baseball didn’t fix itself. Jackie Robinson fixed it.
This is also white ally work, the use of power to name that racism existed and still exists, that the contributions and sacrifices of people of color should not be overlooked or forgotten. It would have been easy for major league baseball to congratulate ITSELF for racial integration. Instead, it remembers and honors Jackie Robinson for his work.
It’s not easy to be an ally in justice work. Most difficult, I think, is to figure out what to DO as an ally. It’s powerful to hear these stories and think, “Yeah, I want to do that! I want to stand next to someone to show my support. I want to yell at someone who’s being a jerk. I want to be a hero.” But the reality, we know, is that in those times of tension and drama, what to do never feels very clear.
Start by thinking about the power you have. Look at your personal and social resources, evaluate the environment you have helped to create or are complicit with by your silence, and decide what needs to be done.
And the next time you find yourself in a situation where someone has said or done something that makes you uncomfortable, speak up. Find a way to disrupt what’s happening. Remember Branch Rickey and Eddie Stanky and Pee Wee Reese …and Jackie Robinson…and find a way to use your power and your voice to lend support to people who have much more at stake than you do.
May it be so. Blessed be, and amen.