It is difficult to find the words to describe all of the events and emotions that transpired last week. The week began on Sunday when the nation was once again shocked by the video of 29-year-old Jacob Blake being shot seven times in the back at point-blank range by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Streets continue to be filled with protesters insisting that black lives matter in the wake of the deaths George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rashard Brooks, yet another unarmed black man was gunned down in broad daylight. Enraged NBA players orchestrated a wildcat-strike in the midst of their playoffs while the Republicans showcased their alternate universe with four days of Trump worship, never mentioning Jacob Blake.
As the news of the Blake shooting reverberated throughout the nation, we received word of the tragic death of acclaimed actor Chadwick Boseman who died Friday, August 28—the day major league baseball designated as Jackie Robinson Day. We learned that Boseman had been battling colon cancer for years, getting chemotherapy treatments as he was wowing worldwide audiences with his superhero performance in the movie “Black Panther.” The Howard University alum had accumulated a sterling record of depicting pioneering African Americans, portraying Hall-of-Fame baseball player Jackie Robinson in “42,” the Godfather of Soul James Brown in “Get on Up,” and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall.” He had just completed the filming of August Wilson’s play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Quite a track record for the talented actor who died at the young age of 43 years.
I decided to watch “42” again. As a baseball fanatic, I am quite fond of the movie. Boseman gave a great performance as did Harrison Ford as the quixotic Branch Rickey who conducted a one-man crusade to break baseball’s color line. That whetted my appetite so I watched the Ken Burns two-part biopic on Jackie Robinson for the first time and discovered how little I knew about the man I had admired for decades. I knew Jackie Robinson was a dazzling baseball star, I knew he was vice president of the Chock full o’ Nuts company, and I knew he had endorsed Richard Nixon for president. I did not know of his full involvement in the struggle for black civil and voting rights. I never realized how much he had given to the cause. Did he always get it right? That’s open for debate but it is not because he was not trying.
When I began to unpack the circumstances that led to the Milwaukee Bucks decision not to play their NBA playoff game against the Orlando Magic, I realized there are hundreds of potential Jackie Robinsons on the scene today. Not just in the NBA or NFL, but WNBA players have much to say and contribute. The spotlight has been on the Los Angeles Lakers LeBron James because of his outspokenness on social justice issues. But there are others who have stepped up to let their voices be heard. When the Bucks took the risk of breaking the no-strike clause in the players association agreement, they were soon followed by the rest of the NBA teams, the WNBA players called off their games, three major league baseball teams decided not to play, and five major league soccer games did not play. Former player and NBA analyst Chris Webber offered a particularly powerful statement.
Revisiting the struggles of the 1960s reminds me that we have made some progress but not nearly enough and not soon enough. When Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1980, I was prepared for the conservative backlash against the progress blacks had made post-World War II. I did not think it would last this long. I have been waiting for the pendulum to swing back. Still waiting. Jackie Robinson could never celebrate his success because he was aware opportunities for blacks were limited and while more African Americans are climbing the ladders of success today, too many ladders have no rungs when you reach a certain height.
This week began with the sad news of the passing of the legendary former Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson, a very special human being who inspired many to achieve their full potential. Must give him due respect. The highlight of the week was the compelling speech by Jacob Blake’s mother Julia Jackson who prayed for the healing of the nation. She said God did not make one type of tree or flower, nor favored one type of human being. She offered prayers for the police and their families and told us we all need to get our acts together. Amen.