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Jackie Robinson's daughter sees parallels between her dad and Barack Obama

“It wasn’t until I was 9 that I learned of the trauma my father went through breaking the color barrier. ... It helped form us as a family and ultimately put us in a special position to serve.”

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR | Times

“It wasn’t until I was 9 that I learned of the trauma my father went through breaking the color barrier. ... It helped form us as a family and ultimately put us in a special position to serve.”

Jackie Robinson's daughter says Barack Obama's presidential victory is the greatest national event she has witnessed in her 58 years.

To be clear, her father broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947, three years before she was born. But during her lifetime she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., listened to her father speak publicly against Jim Crow and witnessed the United States put a man on the moon.

Obama's victory, she said, transformed America, pumping hope into dead souls, leveling the playing field from the top down, showing the world America's commitment to equality. At her home in Apollo Beach where she is recovering from recent heart surgery and finishing a picture book about Jackie Robinson that will be published next fall, Sharon Robinson compared the president-elect with her father. Here are her answers to questions posed by Times staff writer Justin George. They have been edited for space and style.

How similar is President-elect Obama and his historic election to Jackie Robinson's ground-breaking entrance into Major League Baseball?

They were both thrilling achievements and barrier-breaking moments in American history. Both men exhibited courage and dignity in their individual quests and I felt a similar sense of pride in their achievements.

My father and Barack Obama both came from unusual circumstances and seized opportunities that were thrust upon them. My father was raised by a single mother and had to put up with cross burnings, harassment and segregated public facilities. Obama was also raised by his mother, as well as his grandparents. They both received good educations. Robinson attended UCLA, and Obama graduated from Columbia and Harvard universities. They also had strong wives whom they respected and were true partners in their lives.

Before my father began his major league career, Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Dodgers, made a verbal agreement with him. When the name-calling, unfair treatment and threats begin, you can't fight back except with your bat. He meant the only way to battle racism was to play with excellence. You saw parallels in strength and character in Sen. Obama. When he was attacked during the campaign, he handled it with dignity, remained focused, and kept his eyes on the prize.

Did you publicly support Obama during the campaign?

I approached his campaign and offered to speak on his behalf. But a week before a North Carolina speaking engagement, I came down with chest pains. I begged my cardiologist to let me attend, and he agreed as long as I was driven everywhere. But the campaign didn't want to take a chance and made me stay home. Five days later, I had emergency open-heart surgery.

Six weeks later, recovering in New York, I was determined to fly home to Florida and vote. When I arrived at an early voting line, the wait was long. But the person behind me agreed to hold my place and I sat down until it was my time to vote.

I wasn't there when my father broke the color barrier, and I wasn't going to miss this.

What are the similarities between baseball and the presidential campaign?

The color barrier in Major League Baseball was symbolic of a segregated America. When my father crossed that barrier and was successful on and off the field, it affected all Americans and set off a chain of events to bring down Jim Crow laws and bring equality and justice to all Americans. The struggle continues today, but with the success of President-elect Barack Obama's campaign Americans again felt that sense of hope and inspiration. We believe that the same brilliance will be attached to President Obama's presidency and he will lead us out of darkness.

While it's hard to define similarities between baseball and the presidential campaign, I am reminded of the way my father studied pitchers and their movements to determine whether he could steal bases and, how black people unequivocally supported my father's entry into Major League Baseball. When my father joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, black people went to baseball games straight from church carrying picnic baskets, wearing their Sunday clothes just to catch a glimpse of my father. It reminded me of the huge crowds Obama drew.

Was Obama's victory a transformative event among African-Americans and the country?

My son is 30, so I asked him this question. His answer was, "without a doubt." People, of all walks of life, feel hopeful by Obama's victory. A friend's daughter called from Brooklyn to tell us that people had rushed into the streets yelling "Obama." We all smiled brightly the next day! One friend felt so good that she took the extra time to help an elderly man find the right food aisle in a grocery store. My neighbor, a staunch Republican, voted for Obama with reticent conviction, saying, "I did right." The elation will wear off as realities set in and expectations are tempered with politics, but I believe that with President Obama there will be significant change. Young people, like my son, share in that pride and optimism as they participated in this election in record numbers. My hope is that this win will send them a signal to finish that college degree or start that business.

Don't you think this is too much pressure on Obama?

No. I believe that Obama is ready for the challenge.

How important is it for President-elect Obama to succeed during his first term?

The next step is crucial. Breaking a barrier is only the first step. You have to go on and be effective. If my father wasn't a great baseball player, he would have been a failure. He had to perform in spite of the pressure. The same is true with President-elect Obama. He has to win. I have no doubts he will perform — not miracles — but you'll see changes in war and the economy and health care.

After baseball became truly integrated, African-Americans were able to root for their home teams rather than just the Brooklyn Dodgers or the few teams with black players because their home teams finally felt inclusive. Do you think Obama's election allowed African-Americans — who have predominantly voted Democratic — to begin voting more based on other issues rather than racial ones?

At my father's last appearance at a Major League Baseball stadium, he challenged baseball to move African-Americans beyond the playing field into management. My father spent his life working for change. Thirty-five years later, America elects an African-American president. Certainly, that is a historic achievement. But, Americans overwhelmingly voted for change and Barack Obama offered the most hope for significant change. He is the right person. This was the right time.

How Obama's presidency will affect the majority of African-Americans' political leanings will be determined over time. We're individuals with a wide variety of interests and expectations. And, that is how we vote. While African-Americans did shift from the party of Lincoln to the Democratic party, we continue to challenge political candidates and look for those who will have our community's best interest at heart.

During your father's era, the military and baseball did more to integrate Americans than anything else. Now, a black president has won the highest position in politics. What other parts of American life remain segregated?

The struggle for racial and gender equality and justice is an ongoing battle. The election of President-elect Obama is good for all Americans, but it must not lead to complacency. In all areas there have been gains and losses for women and minorities. Our urban public schools, for instance, are resegregated and hurting. Our corporations are still predominantly run by white men. There is plenty of work to be done, but with President-elect Obama at the helm, I'm especially optimistic.

Do you see yourself when you look at Obama's daughters?

It wasn't until I was 9 that I learned of the trauma my father went through breaking the color barrier. My parents sheltered me from a lot of that. The Obama girls, on the other hand, are in the middle of it all.

They have a unique opportunity. My father's breaking of the color barrier wasn't just an event in our life. It helped form us as a family and ultimately put us in a special position to serve and make a difference in the lives of other people. Children of famous people can go in either direction. The Obama girls are lucky to have two wonderful devoted parents who will help guide them forward.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

. MORE INFO

Sharon Robinson

Sharon Robinson, 58, splits her time between New York City and Apollo Beach. She is an education consultant for Major League Baseball and the author of seven books including the upcoming "Testing the Ice," a picture book with artist Kadir Nelson. The book is a true story about her father using a broom and shovel to test the ice of a lake in a white neighborhood the family had just moved into, even though he couldn't swim. It is being published by Scholastic and is due out in September.

Jackie Robinson's daughter sees parallels between her dad and Barack Obama 11/22/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 22, 2008 3:31am]

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