America, thou art Hypocrisy.

Thy promise was fairness to all.

Instead, ‘twas planted a bitter-fruit tree –

Today, yet, we still taste the gall!

Ken Burns Jackie Robinson

Generally, Ken Burns’ excellent filmings of the American story are so remote in time that static images are required to dramatize the narratives. That is not the case with his recently released Jackie Robinson. It depicts an America in which Jackie Robinson (and this writer, as well) lived, as it was being devoured by the quickly developing and all-pervasive sound-film technology. I experienced all but the first ten years of Jackie Robinson’s lifetime.

From Burns’ story, I learned that Jackie Robinson and I had attended the same army officer candidate school (OCS) at virulently racist Fort Riley, Kansas. During WWII, Robinson’s application, at first, was rejected, but he later was admitted through Joe Louis’ intervention. During the Korean Conflict, I discovered that the only way to get out of hated, racist Alaska was to apply for OCS. When I was sent to Fort Ord, California for pre-OCS leadership training, I attempted to renege, but was forced to honor my commitment. After several weeks of Fort Riley’s oppressive racism, I resigned. To the board they convened for the occasion, I said only that I just wanted to leave.

After leaving OCS, I was assigned to a holding-company on the base for a new assignment elsewhere. It was the practice to use such troops for chore assignments around the base. One day, I was the only Colored soldier in a work-party that was loaded on a truck for an unknown destination. We arrived at a non-commissioned officers’ club and ordered off the truck. I asked why. The reply was that we were going to clean the club. I responded that I was not going to work in a club where I was refused admittance. They told me to stay on the truck. When we returned to the company, I was sent to see the commanding officer. He asked me why I had refused a lawful order. I said it was not a lawful order; that President Truman had ordered desegregation of all the armed forces, and that I refused to supply my free labor to a club that collected dues and refused membership to me. I was told to return to the barracks and wait for a call-back for a punishment-hearing. I never saw that captain again.

Truman desegregation of armed forces

The rich output of that modern film technology was available to Ken Burns in this case, and he utilized it to maximum effectiveness. In Jackie Robinson, baseball serves only as the tab with which to pull off the scab of that perennial, putrid, American wound that still affects the bloodstream of so many of us who are still around.

Despite the many other class struggles that properly have utilized the penetration the African American Civil Rights’ spear has forced into the gut of American’s misbegotten sense of singular superiority, it must be understood that – apart from the Native American question – the racial separation in this society, from its beginning and including the Civil Rights era, was strictly, White and Negro.

As an example, apart from their righteous struggle against racism, mainly in the Southwest Region of the U.S., by people of Mexican origin, the cynical one-drop theory applied only to African Americans. As a matter of fact, in order to avoid discrimination, Mexicans who were light-skinned but unable to disguise their linguistic heritage, tended to refer to themselves as, Spanish, which gave them, más categoría. In other parts of the U.S., where the Southwestern racial culture did not apply – but where the White-Colored distinctions always were enforced – the Latino appearance (or that of any other ethnicity) defaulted to White. This carried over to the armed forces, as well. A teenage friend from our church, Julio Andino, of African American and Puerto Rican parentage, was placed into a White unit in the Army, post-WWII. His treatment became so intolerable that he asked to be transferred to a Colored unit. In short, in that America, if you were not recognized as Negro, generally you were defaulted to White. But, as can be seen in Julio’s case, that system had its “flaws.”

The extra-baseball racism depicted by Ken Burns is so widespread and stinging that baseball itself is reduced to what, basically, it is: child’s play! The Robinson family escaped from Mississippi literally in the dead of night. The conditions had not much changed since Jackie’s great-grandmother had lived on that same plantation – not as a human being – but as a single-nomenclature item of chattel! Jackie would find that their escape to California – and, ultimately, throughout the rest of the U.S. – never would completely free them from that Mississippi bondage. That endless chain, he would find, would follow him even as he served as an officer in the U.S. Army.

Jim Crow signs

I have personal testament as to how the U.S. Army uniform was no protection against that virulent hate, so deeply embedded within the DNA of our culture. That infected bloodstream has the same resilience as those Mississippi chains. They follow the Stars and Stripes to whatever corner of the globe in which it is planted:

· Fort Dix, NJ: A family visitor and I were turned away from Service Club NO. 1 and directed to Service Club No. 2, which was reserved for Colored.

· An Army Air Force Base in New Orleans: I, along with a White soldier with whom I was traveling, was required to eat breakfast on a butcher-block in the kitchen.

· Chicago: During a change of trains, while in uniform, I attempted to enter a pub near the station. No Colored.

· Seattle. WA: With several White soldiers, on our way back to base after visiting a roller-skating rink, we wanted to have a beer. We were told that I could not be admitted, but that we could take the beer to go.

· Also in Seattle, I discovered a new level of discrimination. Although they would do business with me, a liquor store carried the blatant sign: “We Do Not Serve Indians!

· Sometimes the bias came in multi-levels and jumped species. Post-Army, on tour with the multi-ethnic Los Angeles City College Chorale, we attempted to have dinner in Yuma, AZ. The restaurant had posted a sign: “No Niggers, Mexicans or Dogs.”

· Even pristine San Diego, where people of color were restricted to the area south of Market Street and women and Colored were barred from the U.S. Grant Coffee Shop: I entered an employment office in a building on the southwest corner of 5th and Broadway. It was crowded, with people filling out application forms. I was told it would be a waste of time for me to complete a form.

(It has occurred to me that it would be propitious to collect these types of experiences, such as what was done with interviews of former enslaved people during the New Deal.)

Jackie Robinson missed the advent of Barack Obama, but he would not be surprised that – although reduced now to the clumsy subtlety of the dog whistle – that long chain and infected bloodstream still have currency.

***** ***** *****

Jackie boy, you sure hit the ball!

It was you who answered the call.

Little did you know

How much of a blow

It would take ere the ball would fall!

Curtis W. Long

Curtis W. Long

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