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        Jackie Robinson | Athlete and Activist

        Jackie Robinson was a sports hero who became a civil rights activist. When Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he became the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. Demonstrating skill as a professional baseball player and consistent dignity both on and off the field, Robinson became an advocate for civil rights, as well as a role model. Through two primary source activities and a short video, understand how Robinson rose to prominence, and explore the importance of courage in his life.

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students will explore the courage that it took for Jackie Robinson to fight segregation and discrimination on and off the baseball field. After viewing a short video about his life, students will analyze a photograph that exemplifies Robinson’s dignity and then read a letter he wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower pleading for speedier action on civil rights. The lesson will conclude with students creating baseball cards that portray Robinson’s remarkable courage both on and off the baseball field.

        Time Allotment

        20 - 40 minutes



        • Doctrine – A stated position of policy
        • Segregation – Legal, enforced division of racial groups


        Jim Crow Laws: Racially segregated schools, libraries, parks, waiting rooms, buses, water fountains, rest rooms and even Bibles used in court rooms were the norm throughout the southern United States from the 1890s until successfully challenged by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. The legal underpinning for this system was the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896, which declared that “separate but equal” facilities for whites and African Americans were constitutionally acceptable. Facilities for blacks, however, were virtually always substandard.

        For more information on Jim Crow, click here.

        For more information on the Freedom Riders, click here.

        Brown vs. Board of Education: A unanimous 1954 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that declared segregation of public schools to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson case had made “separate but equal” facilities legal throughout the country. Oliver Brown, for whom the Brown vs. Board case was named, sued the School Board of Topeka, Kansas because his daughter, Linda, was unable to attend a nearby all-white school due to her race. The Brown case became part of a class action suit litigated by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund under the leadership of future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. In writing the Brown vs. Board decision for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren indicated that he agreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that segregated schooling created a sense of inferiority among black students which unfairly hampered their ability to learn. Although school integration did not occur immediately, the Brown decision was a key milestone in the struggle for African American civil rights and equality.

        For more information on Brown vs. Board of Education, click here and the government responded to the ruling, click here.

        Little Rock Nine: In 1957, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas attempted to prevent the integration of Central High School in Little Rock by nine African American teenagers by having Arkansas National Guard troops block their entry to the school. A large mob of segregationist white protestors showed up to demonstrate their support for the governor’s action. This became a test of the federal government’s willingness to enforce Brown vs. Board, the unanimous 1954 Supreme Court decision that made racially segregated schools illegal. Although the Brown decision applied specifically to schools, it paved the way for desegregation of many American institutions. Eventually, President Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal troops to protect the nine black students as they entered the school building and to accompany them throughout the school day in order to ensure that the Brown decision was upheld and that the school was integrated.

        For more information on the Little Rock Nine, click here

        Background on Jackie Robinson | Athlete and Activist

        Jackie Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. After his father left in 1920, the Robinson family moved to Pasadena, California. Robinson grew up in a segregated neighborhood and played sports on racially segregated teams.

        During high school, Robinson played a variety of sports, including baseball, football, track, and basketball. He continued with athletics at Pasadena Junior College. On January 25, 1938, Robinson was arrested after speaking out about the fact that the police were unlawfully holding an African American friend of his.

        In 1939, Robinson transferred to UCLA and became the first student there to letter in four sports. However, due to financial struggles, Robinson dropped out in 1941 and began work as an assistant athletic director for the National Youth Administration.

        Robinson was drafted into the army to fight in World War II in 1942 and applied to be an officer, but his enlistment was delayed until the Army created new guidelines for black officers. Before he could see combat, Lieutenant Robinson was arrested by military police for refusing to sit at the back of a military bus.

        After leaving the military, Robinson married Rachel Isum, with whom he had three children. Robinson played baseball in the Negro Leagues, a racially segregated professional league. He participated in a tryout for black players held by the Boston Red Sox, but it turned out to be only a publicity stunt and Robinson was mocked by white managers.

        Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers interviewed Robinson in 1945 as a possible addition to the all white major league baseball league. Even though many baseball leaders opposed integration, Rickey got approval from the Dodgers’ Board of Directors to sign Robinson. Rickey was wary of how Robinson would handle the racial attacks that would come with the position. Robinson asked, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” To which Rickey responded, “Robinson, I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

        Robinson was signed onto the Dodgers’ affiliate, the Montreal Royals, in 1946, though the team was turned away from several games due to several officials not wanting to see a black man playing baseball with white men. Rickey fought with the officials to allow the Royals to host an exhibition game against the Dodgers, making Robinson the first black man to play in a minor league game against a major league team. Robinson’s games were incredibly well attended, filling the stands with both fans and protesters.

        Robinson closed the season leading the International League with a .349 battling average. The following season, in 1947, Robinson was moved into the major leagues. There he faced contempt from players on other teams, as well as his own teammates. Robinson endured racial attacks, both verbal and physical, without fighting back. Eventually, his team united against those who insulted Robinson for his race.

        Having shown the world that black men could play professional baseball on a par with whites, more black players joined Robinson in the major leagues in 1948. Robinson became quite famous, having songs written about him and even starring in a movie about his own life.

        Robinson continued playing for a few years, breaking records for hits, bases stolen, fielding, and others. By 1956, Robinson’s struggle with diabetes forced him to retire from major league baseball.

        He then became the first black vice president of a major American corporation, Chock full o'Nuts, a coffee company. Robinson also became the first black analyst for Major League Baseball on television.

        Robinson, sick from heart complications and diabetes, died of a heart attack in 1972. Thousands of people came for the funeral procession. Major League Baseball now recognizes April 15 as Jackie Robinson Day, a day to celebrate the integration of sports.

        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        • Ask students: Define the word courage. Can you think of a time that you were courageous?
        • Introduce Jackie Robinson: 

        In 1947, a time of segregation and overt racism, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to be signed by a Major League Baseball team. In spite of regularly facing crude remarks and physically threatening situations due to his skin color, Robinson chose to remain outwardly calm, consistently dignified, and true to himself. As Robinson explained, “I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me... All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” In addition to being a gifted athlete and a fierce competitor, Robinson was a role model and an important advocate for civil rights.

        Learning Activities

        Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)

        Distribute the Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.

        Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF]

        Play the Video:


        Discussion questions after viewing:

        1. How might Robinson’s childhood and young adulthood have influenced him to become a racial pioneer?

        2. Do you think you could ignore ongoing insults and threats in the way that Jackie Robinson did? What does it take, other than courage, to be able to do so?

        3. What do you think Jackie Robinson meant when he said, “There's not an American in this country free until every one of us is free”?  What did he do specifically to help make more Americans free?


        Examining Primary Sources

        Visual Primary Source Activity (5 minutes) 

        Project or make copies of the image below. This is a 1954 photograph of Jackie Robinson taken by photographer Bob Sandberg for Look magazine, a popular bi-weekly publication from the mid-20th Century. The photo accompanied an article by Robinson entitled, “Now I Know Why They Boo Me” that was published in the January 25, 1955 edition of the magazine.

        Instruct students to examine the photograph, and imagine where the photographer must have been to get the picture.


        1. Why do you think the photographer chose that angle for the picture? How does the photographer’s choice affect your impression of Robinson?
        2. Do you think it is a posed photograph, or an action shot? What leads you to that conclusion?
        3. Notice Robinson’s stance and the expression on his face. Does he appear relaxed or tense? What words would you use to describe him? See the shape made by Robinson’s arm and bat. Where does that lead your eye? What do you focus on?
        4. Look magazine, in which this photograph appeared, was a general interest publication that was mostly subscribed to and purchased by white people. Do you think that this photograph would have helped or hindered Robinson in his quest to overcome racism?
        Written Primary Source Activity (15 minutes)

        Students will read a letter sent by Jackie Robinson, then an executive at a coffee company, to President Eisenhower, then answer a series of questions.

        Before doing the activity, explain the Little Rock Nine incident to students.

        Download the Written Primary Source Activity [PDF]

        Culminating Activity

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.

        To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.

        Students will create a series of two-sided baseball cards. On one side they will present a challenge Robinson faced; on the other side, they will describe a corresponding achievement. You may require students to develop a particular number of cards independently or have them do this as a group activity. Depending on the available time, students may be encouraged to illustrate their cards.

        Here is an image of a baseball card front for reference:

        "Jackie Robinson Baseball Card, No. 10, 195." Flickr.


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