The Day Jackie Robinson Visited Maryland State | University of Maryland Eastern Shore Marketing Retarget Pixel

The Day Jackie Robinson Visited Maryland State

  • The baseball Hall-of-Famer’s remarks conveyed the anger, anxiety of 1968

    Wednesday, June 2, 2021
    Jackie Robinson - June 2, 1968

    On the occasion of Major League Baseball great Willie Mays' 90th birthday in May, former President Barack Obama saluted the “Say Hey Kid” with a 21st century tribute via social media that read, in part: 

    If it wasn't for folks like Willie and Jackie Robinson, I might never have made it to the White House.” 

    Such is the enduring legacy of Robinson, who 53 years ago -- June 2, 1968 -- delivered Maryland State College's commencement address. 

    Robinson is widely revered for being the Black athlete who broke modern-day baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947, when many in Maryland State's class of 1968 were infants.  He played just 10 seasons before transitioning into a prominent voice of the 1960s' civil rights movement. 

    Jack Roosevelt Robinson was part of a venerated list of civil rights activists to speak at Maryland State graduations in the 1950s and 1960s; Bishop Frank M. Reid Jr. of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among them. 

    Accompanied by his wife, Rachel, Robinson came to Princess Anne with a heavy heart on that unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon.  Two months earlier, James Earl Ray gunned down King, alongside whom Robinson campaigned to end segregation and expose racism. 

    King's life -- and shocking death -- was an essential theme in his remarks. 

    “We live dangerously in this nation today -- poised on the edge of strife,” Robinson warned.  “Where we go from here depends on whether young men graduating today, or in the immediate future, are willing to pick up the torch Dr. King was carrying - whether you have the courage to accept your rightful role in the struggle.”

    It was 1968, after all, a year historians point to as one of the most politically and socially tumultuous of the latter half of the 20th century. 

    College President John Taylor Williams understood the moment, and he astutely arranged for Robinson's address to be preserved in a post-commencement publication that also featured a copy of his honorary degree citation.  Included, as well, was a reproduction of a congratulatory letter on White House stationary featuring President Lyndon B. Johnson's signature. 

    The nation's 36th president also was integral to the message Robinson delivered that day. 

    When a federal Commission on Civil Disorders “issued a courageous, astoundingly honest report (that) placed much of the blame for our social ills on white racism -- a report (that) warned we were in great danger of going the disgraceful Jim Crow route of South Africa,” he said, “the president acted as though the cat had (gotten) his tongue.” 

    “I did not come here to talk politics,” Robinson said.  “But I can't help talking about politicians -- lay leaders of our nation, men who set the example of acknowledging the Fatherhood of God but who find it impossible, when convenient, to turn their backs on the brotherhood of man.” 

    “I cannot be silent regarding such hypocrisy, particularly in the awful wake of the assassination of Dr. King,” he said. 

    Robinson's remarks reflected the tension of the times.  He did not mince words, criticizing, by name, Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Mike Mansfield of Montana, the U.S. Senate's Democratic majority leader.  He also questioned the character of the Republican Party's 1968 presidential nominee. 

    “I think Mr. Richard Nixon rates some kind of award for his ability to seek to be all things to all men,” he said.  “Nixon seems to hope that all of his past pious statements on civil rights will stand him in good stead while he now goes about the country bowing low to white backlash.” 

    Robinson's appearance in Princess Anne attracted scant news coverage.  The local daily newspaper published a four-paragraph article on page 7 the following day, describing his speech as “stirring and inspirational.”  The Tuesday, June 4 edition of the newspaper ran a list of the 105 graduates on page 18. 

    “We must have a society of conscience, not consensus,” he said.  “We must not have a society in which a president will not fear to speak ringing truth because the stock market of public opinion might crash.” 

    Four days following Robinson's address in the now-defunct Kiah gym, Sirhan B. Sirhan assassinated U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had been surging as a Democratic presidential candidate on a platform of racial equality and economic justice. 

    The Afro-American newspaper based in Baltimore published an article about Maryland State's graduation on Tuesday, June 11 that featured a grainy photograph of Robinson and Williams along with names of degree candidates, including Arthur L. Shell Jr., who became a star professional football player and the National Football League's first Black head coach. 

    Six weeks after speaking at Maryland State, Robinson was stricken with a heart attack.  He died in 1972 from heart problems believed to be linked to complications caused by diabetes. He was 53. 

    HISTORIC NOTE: Leonard S. Coleman Jr., the last man to serve as professional baseball's National League president and a grandson of Princess Anne Academy principal Thomas H. Kiah, is chairman emeritus of the Jackie Robinson Foundation governing board.