The Color Line: The Other Robinson

Culture Watch

Mr. Beres, a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, was sports information director at Northwestern, and later at the University of Oregon. He was also host to Mack Robinson at the 1984 Olympic Scientific Congress in Eugene, Oregon.

It's fitting that Black History Month be observed in February-- the heart of the basketball season-- because Blacks of today have become the dominant, best-paid performers in a sport where their participation was not allowed at one major conference university in the North as late as 1959.

Though the struggle of Black athletes continues, their opportunities have expanded well beyond the limitations they faced less then half a century ago. But in the years of segregation in the North, as well as the South, constant prejudice limited their chances in competitive sport.

Not until Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 with the Dodgers (then in Brooklyn) was a Black allowed to play major league baseball. Because entry into pro basketball-- which they dominate today-- was closed to them in the pre-1950s, the best Black players took part in exhibition games nationwide for Abe Saperstein's Harlem Globetrotters. As late as 1959, varsity basketball at the University of Minnesota remained segregated.

One talented Black of that era, Olympics sprinter Mack Robinson, had to deal with an entirely different kind of limitation on his career as an athlete,"But," Mack told me,"if clouds shadowed me, they had silver linings."

Mack's fabled sports name was built around the impact on society of his younger brother, Jackie, and his ground-breaking role as the first Black in big league baseball. But while Jackie still was a playground player back home in Pasadena, Calif., Mack in 1936 helped strike a blow for human rights at the Berlin Olympics in front of history's most notorious bigot, Adolf Hitler.

Not even Hitler's devious propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, could write anything to blunt the reality of what Mack, in tandem with another African-American, the great Jesse Owens, achieved before a global audience. The Nazi public relations maven was ready with his packaged lies after Owens's four gold medals at the Berlin Olympiad contradicted the German claim of Aryan supremacy.

But Goebbels's prepared response -- that Owens was an aberration, a one-man exception that proved the rule -- was destroyed by Mack when his glistening black body crossed the finish line second, just a step behind Owens, in the 200 meters sprint.

Tragically, the statement Jesse and Mack made across the Atlantic had little effect on the deprivation they and others of their race faced back home in the United States. Mack didn't get the standard parade in his honor in Pasadena, where for several years his task was to pick up after parades as a street cleaner.

I met Mack in 1984 at a luncheon in honor of his 70th birthday, which I arranged at the request of the Olympic Scientific Congress. The Congress was held in Eugene, Ore., just before the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Mack was remembered as star of the 1936 Oregon track team, winning Pacific Coast titles in the low hurdles and long jump, as well as an AAU national title at 200 meters.

Those feats did not dispel the cloud of prejudice under which African-Americans existed in a society at that time marred by"Whites Only" signs. As I escorted Mack around campus during the Congress, he showed no signs of bitterness, only gratitude for his college experience.

Recalling his Olympics year, Mack said team members were not segregated while in Europe."But," he said,"we were segregated when we returned home, whites in one hotel, blacks in another. They let us know we were back in America, and that your place is `here,' and the whites' place is 'there.'"

Mack and Jesse remained friends over the years of social change. Mack was spokesman for the Atlantic Richfield Company Jesse Owens Youth Games staged around the country, and had come to the Olympic Congress in Eugene from Owens Games in Anchorage, Alaska. He also gloried in his kid brother's achievements in bringing racial equality to sports.

"From the time he was successful in baseball," said Mack,"the whole concept of 'employables' was changed for blacks -- from stock boys to clerks, then to administrative positions, judges, lawyers, congressman. We've been on the upswing ever since. Jack was a pioneer, not just in sports, but in all areas of life."

Jesse, Jackie and Mack are no longer with us. But they remain towering figures in a society for which they led the movement toward equal opportunity in athletics. Mack said something to me that showed his concerns went far beyond sports."With all the intelligence in today's world," he said in 1984,"I would like to see people sit down at a conference table and deal with one another as human beings. Why can't all countries respect each other instead of killing people and suppressing people? Maybe it is impossible because of greed. Among athletes, real animosities don't exist. Athletes learn to win, and they learn to lose. Most important, they learn to congratulate each other."

Although Jackie and Jessie became the kinds of sporting legends that left Mack in the shadows, he never felt diminished. When I last saw him, he told me:"I was lucky to be a part of what they did."

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