New PBS documentary reveals complex life of Georgia-born baseball legend Jackie Robinson

It’s easy to forget that baseball legend Jackie Robinson is a native of Georgia. He came of age on the West Coast and made a name for himself in New York,  but his ties to Georgia would continue long after his years on the baseball diamond.

Jackie Robinson Day is April 15. In honor of the event, PBS is releasing a four-hour Ken Burns documentary on the athlete that chronicles his life from his birth in rural Georgia to his rise as one of the greatest baseball players and humanitarians of our time.

“He gave us our first lasting progress in civil rights since the Civil War and ever since I finished my Baseball series in 1994, I’ve been eager to make a standalone film about the life of this courageous American,” said Burns. The documentary airs April 11 and 12 on PBS and is available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download.

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Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia to tenant farmer parents. His mother, an outspoken woman often called “uppity” by her detractors, urged her husband to ask for a share of the profits, but when his request was granted, the extra money would prove their undoing as a couple. After Robinson’s father left his wife and four children, his mom packed them up and moved to Pasadena, California in the wave of African-Americans who left the south in search of better lives.

In the documentary, actor Jamie Foxx voices Robinson (reading from his writings and speeches over the years) who showed early promise as an athlete. He went on to attend the University of California Los Angeles and excelled in four sports — baseball, track, football and basketball. His wife, Rachel Robinson and children, Sharon and David Robinson, fill in details of his time after college, military service and several years playing in baseball’s Negro leagues, right up to the history changing moment that he agreed to be part of a grand experiment to integrate baseball.

From the moment Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was under pressure to perform while holding in any impulse to respond to the hate mail and vicious attacks from fans and other players. He would eventually win over everyone, mostly due to his undeniable prowess as a baseball player, but also for having remained cool in the face of unjust treatment.

As President Obama articulates in the second part of the documentary, it was unfair to assume that Robinson would sustain this manner forever– a manner which was contradictory to his nature. Robinson, an integrationist, took everyone to task — white or black — whose actions didn’t support equality for all. His views cost him popularity and caused a fallout with fellow black teammate, Roy Campanella.

Burns’ documentary does much to debunk many of the myths surrounding Robinson, even though his life story has been well-mined in the past. That bromance moment between Robinson and Pee Wee Reese which has been immortalized as a statue probably never happened, posit several interviewees. Burns also offers a more complex view of just how Robinson ended up being the face of integrated baseball. It wasn’t just the perfect planning of Dodger manager, Branch Rickey, but a complex mix of factors that led to Robinson’s torchbearing career. Here’s a clip:

We also see the complexities that Robinson’s own family faced — he and Rachel had trouble buying homes in predominantly white neighborhoods and his children unwittingly integrated their respective elementary schools. Daughter, Sharon Robinson said they never discussed the impact of those things on their lives as conversations about the struggle were reserved for the movement as a whole.

The Dodgers won the World Series in 1955 finally beating the Yankees, and soon Robinson moved on to a career in business. He also became an avid support of the civil rights and was always ready to accept the call of service from Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the movement.

This would ultimately lead him back to Georgia where he would make the rounds of rural towns like the one in which he was born, speaking to residents and viewing the wreckage of small town racism.

Throughout his life, Robinson inspired many individuals from other baseball legends like Willie Mays to activists like Malcolm X. Even as his star faded and his body was weakened by illness — Robinson suffered from diabetes and heart trouble — he continued fighting for what he believed in.

Robinson died at age 53. Jesse Jackson gave the eulogy at his funeral, but perhaps Robinson had already offered the most insightful reflection of his life.

“As a black man in a white world…I know that I never had it made,” said Robinson.

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