The Rest of 42’s Story: Jackie Robinson as Civil Rights Activist

Today’s post comes from Jenny Sweeney, education specialist at the National Archives at Fort Worth.

Photograph, “Jackie Robinson in his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform” Record Group 306 Still Pictures Identifier: 306-PS-50-7551 Rediscovery Identifier: 11261 NARA ID: 6802718

This Friday, April 12th, the biographical movie 42 about Jackie Robinson is set to be released. Millions of people will flock to theaters to relive or learn for the first time the baseball icon’s story. In 1947, Robinson crossed the color line in Major League Baseball when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This decision would not only integrate baseball, but would help the country work to achieve equal rights for all. Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., once commented to baseball pitcher Don Newcombe, “Don, you and Jackie will never know how easy you made my job, through what you went through on the baseball field.”

The movie chronicles Robinson’s first years with the Dodgers and the harsh treatment he experienced. As educators we should challenge our students to discover the rest of Robinson’s story. What was his experience prior to signing with the Dodgers? How did Robinson choose to express his thoughts and opinions about events taking place in America? Did Robinson view himself as a leader in the era of Civil Rights? Many questions about Robinson’s life can be answered by exploring primary sources from the National Archives.

General Court Martial orders, 8/23/1944NRPA-O
Job 09-A2-093_007_001
Court-martial order from the military personnel file of Jack “Jackie” R. Robinson, 8/23/1944, from the Records of the Army Staff. NARA ID 2641509

For example, before becoming a famous baseball player, Lieutenant Jack R. Robinson was court-martialed at Camp Hood, Texas, in August 1944 because he refused to move to the back of the bus after being told to do so by a bus driver and then disobeying an order from a superior officer. Find out the outcome of the case by viewing Robinson’s official court-martial order and discuss if his case was similar to other figures in history. (You can read more about this in the article Jim Crow, Meet Lieutenant Robinson: A 1944 Court-Martial by John Vernon” in Prologue magazine.)


After retiring from baseball, Robinson turned much of his attention to Civil Rights issues. He wrote to several presidents about the cause and even attended the March on Washington. Direct students to explore the letter Robinson wrote to President John F. Kennedy in February 1961. What was the tone of the letter? What did Robinson think of Kennedy’s approach to Civil Rights? What do you think Kennedy might have thought after receiving the letter? Would Kennedy’s policies change?

Robinson’s letter to President Kennedy, 2/9/1961, from the Papers of John F. Kennedy, Presidential Papers.

Robinson to Kennedy Page 2

It is yet to be determined what audiences will think of 42, but students will be informed of his experiences and activism that the movie may not address. You can explore these documents and others about baseball history in our free eBook Baseball: The National Pastime in the National Archives.

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