Here is Rev. Martin Luther King (1929-1968) writing from jail in Summer 1963. The intended audience is fellow ministers. The topic is church leaders’ opposition to King’s direct advocacy for integration.
“In spite of my shattered dreams of the past, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and with deep moral concern serve as the channel through which our just grievances could get to the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed…
I have longed to hear white ministers say, follow this decree because integration is morally right and the Negro is your brother… In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with… There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society… Things are different now. The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound… Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
Here is another civil rights champion speaking to about 600 white ministers six years before King’s famous letter. Branch Rickey (1881-1965) was a conservative evangelical Christian. He got the same treatment from church leaders that King later experienced.
I am contemptuous of the church’s role to date in integration. Ministers on the whole are like other people. They want to go slow on integration. They’re moderates… To advise moderation is like going to a stickup man and saying to him, Don’t use a gun. That’s violent. Why not be a pickpocket instead? A moderate is a moral pickpocket.
Rickey, of course, is the baseball executive most responsible for integrating the sport. He signed Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) to a contract with the Montreal Royals and subsequently brought him to the parent club, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Rickey was a premier innovator as an owner and general manager of several teams, notably the Dodgers, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was the first to develop a farm system to recruit and train ballplayers; he made spring training a true school for the regular season; he introduced batting helmets; and he experimented with statistics, including the recently voguish on base percentage.
No one should consider Rickey the sole force behind sports’ integration, just as King should not be given all the acclaim for civil rights progress in the 1950s and 1960s. Robinson rightly deserves high place. In fact, Rickey did not realize the depths of racism until he observed the daily courage of Robinson in the International League and then in the Major Leagues. Other pioneers in sports integration must include Larry Doby (1923-2003) and Bill Veeck (1914-1986).
Nor should singular motives be attributed to Rickey. He was a businessman interested in money. That motive was in play when, before even scouting black players, he needed approval of the Dodgers’ board. Its president was George McLaughlin (1887-1967). On many topics the evangelical Rickey and the Catholic McLaughlin disagreed (notably on drinking). However, they shared a common business interest. Rickey approached McLaughlin with the idea of scouting black players. “If you want to do this to get a beat on other teams and make some money, then let’s do it,” McLaughlin said. But “don’t try to bring principle into this. If this doesn’t work for money, you’re sunk.”
Finally, Rickey was not perfect. In business dealings he sometimes carried a superior posture. He made mistakes in judging ability (though rarely). He asserted himself into politics with only partial understanding.
It is well to repeat that Rickey was a conservative Christian. One does not need to be liberal to be progressive. And although blacks are losing interest in baseball, the World Series remains a great event in part because it displays competence without regard to race. Rickey, by the way, was also instrumental in signing Roberto Clemente (1934-1972) of Puerto Rico. Today some of the best ballplayers hail from Puerto Rico and other Latin countries. And could it be that the International League might soon return to Cuba, where Rickey held spring training at times?
Droel edits a newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)