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On Sports

Former Mayor Johnson recalls Jackie Robinson's impact

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Rochester Business Journal
April 17, 2015

He had watched the Brooklyn Dodgers legend play twice in person—once during an exhibition game in his hometown of Lynchburg, Va., and once during a regular-season game at the old Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. And while seeing Jackie Robinson on the ball diamond was electrifying, those moments paled in comparison to the brief face-to-face meeting Bill Johnson had years later with the man who broke baseball’s color barrier and laid the foundation for the civil rights movement.

Johnson’s brush with greatness occurred during the summer of 1964. He was 22 years old at the time and working as a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. “We had caught wind that Jackie was coming for a tour,” the former Rochester mayor recalled recently. “To say I was excited would be a gross understatement. Everybody needs a hero in their lives, and Jackie Robinson was my hero. Needless to say, I made sure I was working the evening Jackie paid us a visit.”

He was manning the park entrance booth when Robinson’s car pulled up. “Jackie was sitting in the front passenger’s seat and protocol probably called for me to just wave him through, but I can assure you that wasn’t going to happen,” Johnson said, grinning. “I leaned into the driver’s side of the car and thanked Jackie for inspiring me. I just wanted him to know there was a young black man in that park ranger’s uniform that day whose life had been greatly influenced by him.”

Johnson would go on to devote his life to public service and fighting injustice. He worked many years for the Urban League before becoming a trailblazer himself in 1994, when he was the first African-American elected mayor of Rochester. In some respects, it’s too bad his encounter with Robinson had been so brief, because the man who guided the Flower City for 12 years had a much more detailed story to convey about his own stance against bigotry—a story that clearly would have resonated with Robinson, who endured unimaginable hatred in order to integrate a game and a nation.

During his junior year at Lynchburg’s Dunbar High School in 1958, Johnson took a fancy to writing and became editor of the school’s newspaper. He also contributed two essays that were printed in the local newspaper, the Daily Advance—which, to this day, still baffles Johnson because the paper’s paranoid publisher was an avowed racist who believed the civil rights movement was part of a grand communist conspiracy to overthrow democracy.

Johnson’s second essay decried a newly adopted policy in Virginia, which enabled public institutions to become private in order to keep out blacks. In one county, an entire school district was shut down and all the buildings were converted into private academies to ensure segregation.

“As a result, there was an entire generation of black kids who were denied access to a high school education,” Johnson said. “I found that to be an abomination. So, I wrote an essay challenging the white authority of the state of Virginia and I signed it, ‘William A. Johnson Jr., Editor, Dunbar Chronicle.’”

The morning after Johnson’s essay appeared, he boarded his school bus to applause and pats on the back. The adulation continued when he arrived at school, where he was greeted by his English teacher/student newspaper adviser, who said: “William, that was a wonderful piece you wrote.” She then told him that the principal wanted to see him. “I was feeling great,” Johnson recalled. “I thought he was going to celebrate what I had done by closing the school down for a day in my honor. But when I got to his office, he told me he was expelling me because I had used the school’s name at the bottom of the essay without permission. That clearly wasn’t the real reason for the expulsion. He obviously was feeling pressure from the white community because I was a young Negro who had had the audacity to challenge their authority. I was devastated. I went home thinking my life was over. Fortunately, there was quite an outpouring of support for me in the community, and the principal backed off from the expulsion.”

Johnson tells the story as a way of explaining what Jackie Robinson meant to him. “See, Jackie inspired me to stand up for what I believed in, what was right,” he said. “And I bet you there were thousands and thousands of other young men and women from that era who could share similar stories; who could attest to how Jackie’s story of courage empowered them to find the intestinal fortitude to fight for justice.”

Wednesday marked the 68th anniversary of Robinson’s first major league game. It’s still difficult to fathom what he had to endure. The epithets. The death threats. The bean balls and flying spikes. The black cats being tossed onto the field. It’s also hard to fathom how Robinson resisted the impulse to fight back, how he kept his vow to Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey and repeatedly turned the other cheek. He somehow managed to overcome it all and become a Hall of Fame baseball player, with a .311 lifetime batting average, a Most Valuable Player award in 1949 and a World Series title six years later. More importantly, he became the leadoff hitter in the civil rights movement.

“I truly believe that without a Jackie Robinson there could not have been a Martin Luther King,” Johnson said. “And... there were many others laying the foundation, too. But most of them were doing so out of the public sphere. Jackie’s work was there for all the world to see.”

Robinson, who died at age 53 in 1971, liked to say: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” He clearly influenced millions of lives along the way.

Award-winning columnist, best-selling author and radio talk show host Scott Pitoniak is in his 42nd year of journalism.

4/17/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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