42: a movie about Jackie Robinson

My father used to take the subway to Ebbets Field, and I grew up with stories of the Brooklyn Dodgers and especially Jackie Robinson. So when my parents were in town recently, we all went to see 42, the new movie about how Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. While I would not call it a great film, it’s a well-acted, compelling look at an important piece of history, that has sparked several conversations with my kid about the Negro Leagues, racism, nonviolent activism versus fighting back, and what an amazing, beautiful feat it is to steal home.

As many critics have pointed out, in many ways 42 gives us a predictable, conventional story about a lone male hero (supported by a devoted woman) triumphing over adversity, without a lot of room for character depth or moral ambiguity. On top of that, we only see the most famous interval in Robinson’s career, so we miss the longer, more complex story of his struggle against racism — not to mention the larger social and political forces that helped to integrate professional baseball.

Photo of Jackie Robinson and his son David

Jackie Robinson and his son David being interviewed at the 1963 March on Washington

But within those constraints, 42 does several things well. It starkly presents the racist invective, physical violence, threats, and casual insults that Robinson faced day in and day out, and the fierce dignity with which he faced them. Chadwick Boseman portrays Robinson as a combative man who accepts Dodgers executive Branch Rickey’s rule that he “have the guts not to fight back” while offering no hint of meekness or ingratiation. (For example, as Dave Denby points out in the New Yorker, Robinson “doesn’t easily make friends with the white players who like him.”) Boseman also gives us a taste of Robinson’s brilliant, delicious base-running. As Owen Gleiberman writes in Entertainment Weekly, “Robinson isn’t just teasing the pitchers… He’s mocking them, working off his anger.”

The film also shows us how Robinson’s example spurred some whites to stand up to racism, but thankfully doesn’t treat this as the main event. When Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese gets a piece of hate mail for playing alongside a black man, Rickey shows him the thick stack of hate mail that Robinson has received, including death threats and threats to kidnap his child. Later we see the famous moment in Cincinnati when racist fans are heckling Robinson, and Reese, a white southerner, walks over and puts his arm around his black teammate. “I got family up there from Louisville,” Reese says to Robinson about the people in the stands. “I need ’em to know. I need ’em to know who I am.” Such acts of solidarity in the film are not handed down by enlightened white benefactors. They grow out of teammates’ concrete experiences traveling, living, and working together for the same goal.

Dave Zirin at The Nation criticizes 42 for ignoring the longer struggle to integrate baseball (notably the Communist-led campaign in the 1930s that drew mass labor union support) as well the fact that Branch Rickey and nearly all other major league baseball owners refused to compensate Negro League teams for their players, which “led to the destruction of the largest national black owned business in the United States.” Above all, Zirin points out that “Jackie Robinson spent the last years of his life in a grueling fight against his own mythos. He hated that his tribulations from the 1940s were used to tell a story about an individualistic, Booker T. Washington approach to fighting racism.” Yet 42, which says nothing about Robinson’s later involvement in the civil rights movement, largely continues this individualistic approach. (See also Zirin’s earlier column, “Five Fears About ’42.’“)

Photo of youth baseball players in dugout watching game

Philadelphia youth baseball team wears #42 to commemorate Jackie Robinson Day, April 15, 2013

These shortcomings can serve as jumping-off points for discussions with kids. It’s useful, for example, to compare Robinson’s refusal to fight back in the face of racist provocation with the nonviolent protest used by many civil rights activists (including the first Freedom Riders that same year of 1947), even in the face of beatings and worse. Like Robinson, many civil rights workers weren’t committed pacifists, but accepted nonviolence as a useful strategy in specific circumstances. (Some, such as Robert Williams, disagreed.) It’s also important to highlight some of the differences: for example, unlike the civil rights workers, Robinson was following the dictates of a white employer, and he did this alone, not as part of an organized movement.

Here are two more jumping-off points that come to mind:

  • Compare Jackie Robinson’s struggle with that of Curt Flood, all-star center fielder with the St. Louis Cardinals, and a black man, who in 1969 refused to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies with the words, “I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes.” Flood’s stance cost him the rest of his career, but it helped eventually to break baseball’s reserve clause, under which teams controlled who players could sign with even after their contracts had expired. (Jackie Robinson testified in support of Flood.)
  • Compare the fight against baseball’s color line with today’s fight against homophobia in sports. There are the same number of openly gay ballplayers in major league baseball today as there were black players in 1946: zero. The same is true in professional men’s basketball, football, and hockey. But this wall is starting to crack. Several retired athletes have come out of the closet, and the National Hockey League and the NHL Players’ Association recently formed a partnership with You Can Play, an organization that combats homophobia in sports through education.

I’ve talked with my son about several of these issues since we went to see 42 together, and we will continue to talk about them in the months and years ahead. But even without the larger history and context, it just made me happy to see him on the edge of his theater seat, rooting for Jackie Robinson. And given what pop culture has on offer for kids (especially boys), he could do a lot worse than root for a man who had the guts not to fight back.

Related resources (just a few that I happen to know):

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, by Kadir Nelson. This large-format kids’ book covers the full history of the Negro Leagues, and is told in the voice of a veteran ball player looking back. Nelson’s stunning paintings complement his lively text.

Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait, by Rachel Robinson with Lee Daniels. Not a children’s book per se, but a detailed commentary on Jackie Robinson’s life and work by his widow, with hundreds of photographs.

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, by Betty Bao Lord. Eight-year-old Shirley Temple Wong immigrates from China to Brooklyn in 1947. Learning to play stickball and rooting for the 1947 Dodgers help her to feel a part of her new community. After her first ball game, Shirley’s classmates nickname her Jackie Robinson “’cause she’s pigeon-toed and stole home.”

Photo credits
Jackie Robinson with his son David, Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., 08/28/1963. Record Group 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003, National Archives and Records Administration, ARC Identifier 542024.
Youth baseball team, Philadelphia, PA, April 15, 2013. Photo by Susan Whiteman Nordlof. Used with permission.

Rosie the Riveter national park explores World War II home front history

You probably know the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” poster: a woman in a kerchief and work shirt, with bulging bicep and determined expression, and the words “WE CAN DO IT.” This image (which originally wasn’t even called Rosie the Riveter) was embraced by the feminist movement in the 1980s and has become an emblem of women’s competence, strength, and combative spirit. So much so, that it’s now something of a cliché.

If you want to show your kids the history behind that image, an excellent place to start is the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. The park is a short drive north of Oakland and Berkeley just off I-580, and we stumbled upon it during a recent vacation in the Bay Area. It’s not a national park in the ordinary sense — the Park Service doesn’t even own any of the land. Instead, there’s a Rosie the Riveter Memorial, a visitor center, a Liberty ship (the SS Red Oak Victory), and a few other sites in and around Richmond’s historic shipyard and industrial area. The park is very new: the visitor center only opened last May, and several of the sites aren’t open to the public yet. Even so, it’s well worth a visit. We spent about an hour in the visitor center and hope to come back eventually to see more of the park.

“The more women at work the sooner we win!” (poster)

World War II Posters Collection, Northwestern University Library, Pr32. 5015: 52, digital.library. northwestern.edu/wwii-posters/

The visitor center is in a handsomely renovated industrial complex that includes the former Ford assembly plant, which turned out jeeps, tanks, and halftracks during World War II. At the center, we saw a short documentary film, toured several rooms of displays (photos, reproduced war posters, models, and a few original artifacts), and visited a small gift shop. You can find the iconic Rosie image here, but it’s not emphasized. There are too many other engaging sights and sounds presenting a rich combination of stories.

At the visitor center you learn how the war transformed Richmond, California, from a quiet working-class community into a booming industrial center overflowing with newcomers from across the country. How Henry J. Kaiser oversaw a revolution in shipbuilding that cranked out an amazing number of ships and drastically cut production time, largely through pre-fabrication and assembly-line methods. And how Kaiser provided health care, housing, and even childcare for his workers in order to maintain and improve their productivity. (Kaiser Permanente, now the largest HMO in the U.S., was an offshoot of this initiative.)

Many of the stories are about the women and people of color who were able to move into industrial jobs during the war. Several of the display panels as well as the film we saw feature interviews with diverse women and men who lived in Richmond and worked in its factories and shipyards. You learn how women workers faced discrimination and harassment but earned respect on the job. (By some accounts, women became better shipyard welders than the men.) How African Americans launched the national “Double-V” campaign, which stood for victory over fascism abroad and racism at home. How workers of every ethnicity and gender endured severe overcrowding but also saw their achievements celebrated with every ship launched.

The visitor center also presents snippets of home front activity outside the workplace, such as how families planted victory gardens and collected scrap for the war effort, as government war posters exhorted them to do. The posters in the exhibits represent a story in themselves — a lively combination of art and propaganda, such as the poster titled “Give ’em both barrels,” which pairs a soldier firing a machine gun and a worker wielding a rivet gun. Apparently, the propaganda sometimes misfired: the display text tells us many workers thought this poster was about the FBI’s war on crime. (More tellingly, a poster featuring an ominous Nazi soldier under the words “He’s watching you” was misinterpreted as the boss keeping a close eye on the shop floor.)

Alongside all the history, there is also a display devoted to Rosie’s Girls, a summer camp program in several states, where middle school age girls learn skilled trades such as welding and carpentry (also bike repair, electrical wiring, fire fighting, etc.) as part of developing their own strength and confidence. The National Park Service is one of many partners sponsoring Rosie’s Girls.

Photo of Miss Eastine Cowner working at Kaiser shipyards

Miss Eastine Cowner helps construct the Liberty ship SS George Washington Carver, Kaiser shipyards, Richmond, CA, 1943. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USW3- 028673-C.

Because there are so many story threads at the Rosie the Riveter visitor center, there are opportunities to engage kids of many different ages and interests. Our 9-year-old paid close attention to a lot of the military-themed posters, as I expected he would. But when I asked him what he liked best at the visitor center, he said the film, and the display about the Port Chicago “mutiny” (strike), when black sailors refused to load munitions under unsafe conditions, after an explosion at the docks killed 320. Fifty of the “mutineers” were court-martialed and sent to prison.

Children who come to the visitor center are offered National Park Service trading cards. This is a new Park Service initiative to help encourage kids to talk with park interpreters, and encourage families to visit different parks. The trading cards are available at a number of Park Service historic sites around the country and feature themes from “Civil War to Civil Rights.” Each site offers different trading cards and the cards are available only in person, although you can find the images on Flickr. One of the cards our son received showed a “Welding crew in Kaiser Shipyard, Richmond, CA,” with the caption:

“In 1941 Executive Order 8802 banned racial discrimination in defense work, promising increased opportunity for people of color. But the order was weakly enforced–employment discrimination based on race didn’t become illegal until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. WWII shipyard crews in Richmond CA became more diverse by the war’s end, though women and people of color were generally the first laid off.”

At the visitor center I sensed a kind of tension between different versions of history. Rosie the Riveter was created as an icon of liberal patriotism, and to some extent she continues to play that role. Classic liberal mythology sees World War II as “The Good War,” when democracy defeated fascism, outmoded barriers to personal achievement began to fall, and we overcame our differences to all pull together. The Kaiser Shipyards add to this a myth of enlightened capitalism, when management provided social programs and really looked out for the workers. Rosie the Riveter visitor center sometimes reinforces this Good War myth by highlighting upbeat, celebratory themes: a town moving out of depression into prosperity and a shared sense of purpose, and women discovering a new sense of possibility. (Said one woman interviewed in the film, “I learned I can do anything I want.”)

The Good War myth glosses over the uglier side of how the U.S. fought World War II at home and abroad, from the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans to the suppression of workplace activism, from the treatment of Japanese soldiers as subhumans to the refusal to rescue Europe’s Jews.

Fortunately, Rosie the Riveter visitor center largely presents home front history free of sugar coating. It doesn’t shy away from portraying the persistent discrimination that workers of color faced. And it makes clear that recruiting women into industrial jobs was never intended to shake up gender roles permanently, and that most of these jobs were closed to women again once the war ended.

Overall, this is a valuable and promising example of public history. I look forward to seeing the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park continue to grow and develop in the years ahead.

Related resources

Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II
This National Park Service online exhibit of artifacts, photos, and stories does a good job of presenting complex history in a clear and accessible manner.

Rosie the Riveter: Real Women Workers in World War II
This video from the Library of Congress is narrated by women’s studies specialist Sheridan Harvey. Her analysis of Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” cover of the Saturday Evening Post is a highlight.

Rosie the Riveter WWII American Homefront Project
The Regional Oral History Office of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library has interviewed dozens of Bay Area residents about their World War II experiences. Excerpts from some of these interviews are available online.

Rosie the Riveter Memorial Park
This 2007 blog post on Bay Radical, a blog devoted to the history of radical activism in the Bay Area, describes the memorial and includes a good summary and links about World War II industry in Richmond CA and elsewhere.

Invisible working women: film review of The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter
Sue Davenport’s film review in Jump Cut (April 1983) asks how women workers’ individual experiences relate to larger historical forces.

“Several madnesses are born”: working-class women in the 1930s and World War II: a social history (excerpt)
This is Chapter 4 of Wanda Downing Jones’s 1988 masters thesis at the University of Texas – Arlington, which focuses on women workers’ relationship with organized labor during World War II.