That’s how it starts; “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” The Constitution—the greatest political document ever written. I realize that it is flawed. The 3/5 Compromise got corrected when we supposedly ended slavery. I say supposedly, because although slavery was outlawed and voting rights were guaranteed by amendments to the Constitution, people of color have been denied many of their rights and have been and still are treated as second class citizens. We are a nation that espouses high ideals, but doesn’t live up to them.
I’m not saying that progress hasn’t been made. I’m old enough to have lived through the 1950s and ’60s. When Trump and his followers talk about returning America to the White Male domination of the 1950s, shivers run up and down my spine. Racial and sexual equality gains have been made for a number of reasons. Oh sure, there were the fair-minded liberals who see Blacks, Hispanics and women as full human beings, but an even bigger reason why things changed was that it was good business.
Nearly 100 years ago, my grandfather hired Ms. Glenn, or Miss Glenn as she was called then. At that time my grandfather had about a dozen secretaries working in his office. A few decades later a buyer from one of the department store chains in the South was in the showroom and asked to use the men’s room. My grandfather directed him to walk past the office and make a right turn. A few minutes later, the buyer, a very well dressed and polite gentleman, returned and asked my grandfather why he employed a “nigra.” My grandfather thought for a second and replied, “Oh, you mean Miss Glenn? She’s a wonderful worker. I’d be nuts not to have her.” End of story.
My father related all this to me several years later during my first trip to the South. It was 1961 and I was 12-years old. Our entire family piled into our two-toned Pontiac. There were the three of us boys, my aunt, my mother (who was pregnant with my sister), and my father at the wheel. No seat belts. We visited the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Gettysburg, where we walked on that hallowed ground and came face-to-face with our country’s history. From there we went to Washington, DC and visited the White House, the FBI, and the Smithsonian. Little did I know the role that those three institutions would play in my adult life. Finally we drove to Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Vernon.
While we were in Northern Virginia, we ate lunch in a very nice restaurant. I only remember two things about it. They served pickled watermelon rinds (delicious—we don’t get those up North) and there were signs on the water fountains and restrooms for “White Only” and “Colored.” I’d never seen this or even knew it existed. I was confused and asked my parents about it. That’s when my father told me the story about my grandfather.
Of course, I knew about slavery and the Civil War. I knew that we lived in a segregated society, but I also knew that things were changing. Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole and other great jazz stars were frequent performers on TV, and more importantly to me at that time, my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers were an integrated baseball team with great stars like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. When Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, he opened the floodgates, to the utter dismay of racists nationwide.
Branch Rickey claimed that his decision to hire a “Negro” was based on an incident from his college days, when the sole Black player on his baseball team was not permitted to play in the college league. That makes a nice story, and at the same time, makes Rickey out to be a great champion of civil rights, which I suppose he was, but it ignores the obvious. Rickey was a brilliant businessman. He needed to field a team that could beat the dreaded Yankees. He, like every baseball player and fan, and certainly all of baseball management, was acutely aware of the amazing talent in the Negro Leagues.
There was an unwritten law in baseball: no Black player had been allowed to play in professional baseball since the 1890s (50 years). Breaking that “gentleman’s agreement” would wreak havoc. Rickey had the guts to risk that, because he saw beyond the novelty of hiring Robinson; he had Campanella and Newcombe coming up the next year. And after that, a steady stream of the best players he could steal from the Negro Leagues. This was an opportunity that he couldn’t pass up
It didn’t take long for the Cleveland Indians to hire Larry Doby and similarly integrate the American League. Just as progress toward gay rights has snowballed in the last few years, baseball quickly integrated. It was just good business. For the Black players, this was a great opportunity, but with it came a lot of pressure to succeed in the face of racist taunts, threats and violence. These were very brave men. Pretty quickly their fellow teammates accepted them and then the fans followed. They recorded songs about them like Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball? and Say, Hey about Willie Mays. Growing up in New York, these were larger-than-life heroes.
A few years later, unbeknownst to the public, Black women were instrumental in sending our first astronauts into space. This has come to light on TV and in the movies just recently. Now everyone knows. Black women were great scientists and mathematicians 50 years ago. Imagine that! And why did they get those jobs? Because they were the best people at that time. Just like baseball, it was plain and simple—good business.
Why am I talking about this ancient history? Because some people still don’t get it. We the people means all the people. And our union means that we band together out of our commonality and common purpose. We are far more alike than we are different. The American Experiment teaches us E Pluribus Unum: out of the many, one. Inclusivity.
As long as I’m on a Ten Commandments kick, how about, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” You could be a Good Samaritan and behave that way for altruistic reasons, or you could be completely selfish like Branch Rickey and do it because it’s just good business. For whatever reason, as Jim Jefferies says at the end of every one of his shows, “We all need to do better.”