by Marlene H. Phillips
He was the first African American to succeed in a way that a black man had never succeeded before. And he succeeded not just because he was talented but because he had the temperament that was required; he knew going in that he was going to be tested on a personal level as no one else in his profession had ever been tested, and that required a certain type of man. There were others with more experience, some who were undoubtedly more talented, but he made it because he had the talent plus the demeanor, the calm judgment and the sheer guts to deflect the disrespect and keep his cool.
Barack Obama. And Jackie Robinson. Watching this year's presidential debates I was struck by the parallels.
Barack Obama has had to endure more disrespect and insult than any presidential candidate in my lifetime. Before this election I have never seen a candidate running for president who wouldn't even call his opponent by name, or even by office, instead referring to him with a dismissive wave and an insulting 'That one." Just watch the difference between the two candidates while they wait for their turn to speak: Obama watches McCain attentively. In contrast, McCain paces with pent-up anger, and can barely look at his opponent. McCain's body language not just telegraphs but positively screams his disdain for his opponent. When supporters called Obama a terrorist, McCain tacitly encouraged it by saying nothing, offering no rebuke and no admonishment. When people yelled death threats when Obama's name was mentioned, and neither the candidate or his running mate said a word, all I could think of was the bigots in the stands at baseball games screaming for Jackie Robinson to be killed. Robinsons' fellow Brooklyn Dodger Pee Wee Reese stood up for Robinson; Reese, the proud Southerner who himself had doubted whether he could play side by side with a black man, made a point of going over to Robinson and then casually slung his arm over his teammate's shoulder, shocking and silencing the crowd. Sarah Palin, you are no Pee Wee Reese.
But the parallel was not just in the abuse and disrespect heaped on both men. It was in the response. Branch Rickey knew the first African American to come out of the Negroe Leagues and play in the Major Leagues had to have the guts to take the abuse and not fight back. Robinson and his family were subjected to horrible abuse, yet Jackie Robinson took it. He took it and maintained his grace and kept his composure, and oh yeah, he also managed to play the hell out of the game of baseball day after day after day. McCain's supporters have called Obama a terrorist, a babykiller and the anti-Christ. And Obama has risen above it. In each debate, he's deflected McCain's personal and persistant attacks and kept the focus on the issues facing the nation. And oh yea, he's managed to run one hell of a campaign, day after day after day.
There was never a time that I didn't know who Jackie Robinson was. My father was one of the legion of devoted Brooklyn Dodger fans, possibly the greatest fans in the history of the sport, and he could never say Robinson's name without lowering his voice in respect. My father said he wasn't just a great ballplayer, he called him simply A Great Man. I watch Barack Obama handle this campaign and I'm struck by more than just his talent and his intelligence and his dedication to doing right by his country. I'm struck with his dignity in the face of insult. I'm struck by his refusal to feed the fire of hatred. I'm struck by his determination to rise above. I wish my father was alive to see this too. I think he'd say, with that lowered voice denoting respect, that Barack Obama is A Great Man.