January 21, 2019
By: William Mattox
Last January, around MLK Day, a long-time civil rights activist from Miami said something that startled me: “If Martin were still around today, many people would consider him a sissy.” Or at least they’d have little use for MLK’s commitment to non-violent moral persuasion.
Because we live in a day of Perpetual Bombast where seemingly everyone on all sides of any issue is more interested in boorish grievance-venting than in thoughtful, respectful, unintimidating efforts to win over others. (No wonder America seems to be coming apart!)
Dr. King, of course, rose to prominence at a time when it took a lot of courage for a man like him to speak truth to power. And surely no fair-minded person who has read his rhetorical masterpiece, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” would ever accuse MLK of being a wimp or a pushover.
Yet, curiously, one of the reasons King’s call for non-violent moral persuasion had so much legitimacy in his day is because the wisdom of this methodology had been recently proved – by a black man born in a sharecropper’s house less than 30 miles from Tallahassee.
Jackie Robinson “was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides,” King once said. And one of the reasons King considered Robinson “one of the truly great men of our nation” is because Robinson did not trade insult for insult with racists who objected to his daring attempt to integrate America’s national pastime.
“I’m looking for someone who has the guts not to fight back,” Dodgers owner Branch Rickey told Robinson when he first broached the idea of integrating baseball. And the fact that Robinson – a star ballplayer, a man’s man – agreed to overlook mistreatment and “let his play on the field do the talking” helped lay the groundwork for many of the civil rights gains that followed.
This year, we not only celebrate the 90th anniversary of MLK’s birth, but we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s birth. And since Tallahassee is the nearest city to Robinson’s birthplace, the Village Square is planning a three-part centennial celebration.
First, on Jan. 31 (Jackie’s birthday), we’ll hold a “Local Color” panel discussion about the role of sports in improving race relations. This forum will include Linda Walden, one of Jackie’s cousins, along with Fred Flowers, the “Jackie Robinson of FSU.”
Later, on April 15 (Jackie Robinson Day), we’ll screen a film about Robinson’s life as part of our Race to the Movies series.
Between these two events, we’ll sponsor the “42 Challenge,” a scavenger hunt contest for the young (and young at heart) to “take a trip around the bases,” visiting four local historical sites connected to Robinson. (For more information about these programs, including remaining sponsorship opportunities, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
This year, let’s celebrate MLK Day by also remembering one of Dr. King’s heroes: Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. For without Robinson’s wise and courageous example, we might never have tasted the fruits of MLK’s righteous work – nor seen what can happen when people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
William Mattox is the chair of Tallahassee’s Village Square. He served on the Tallahassee Civil Rights Heritage Walk Committee.