Artwork by Ernest Hamlin Baker

In my unhumble opinion, Jackie Robinson is the greatest American in history/­herstory. I met him only once. It was in his later years, at a Long Island University basketball game, which was played at what used to be the Paramount Theatre, where Frank Sinatra sang to thousands of Bobby Soxers, at the corner of DeKalb and Flatbush, across the street from Junior’s cheesecake, in the People’s Republic of Brooklyn, New York.

During halftime, my Father pushed me toward Jackie, whose head was full of gray. At first I couldn’t believe this man was the great Jackie Robinson. I went up to him and said, “My name is Spike Lee and I know who you are.” His big hand swallowed mine. Jackie said, “Young fella, do you play baseball?” I answered, “Yes, sir.” Jackie said, “What position?” I quickly answered, “Second base.” “So did I!” Jackie shot back. After that, my Father taught me how Branch Rickey signed Jackie to the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking baseball’s color barrier.

Read the original story from 1947: Rookie of the Year

“Dem Bums” were the favorite team for Black Folks, even the ones who didn’t know about baseball. They said their prayers every night on bended knee that Jackie would get a hit. They knew a lot—maybe everything—was riding on this. The advancement of The Negro Race. No African American had more pressure on him/her to succeed than Jackie. OK, you may throw President Barack Obama in there, but if Jackie had failed “the Great Experiment,” would Obama be the First Black President? Jackie’s failure would have set Black Folks back for many generations afterwards. Martin Luther King Jr. said himself, “without him I would never have been able to do what I did.” He was a Sit-Inner before Sit-Ins. A Freedom Rider before Freedom Rides.

Lee in February with a game-worn Robinson jacket and two TIME covers—Robinson on the right—he displays at his Brooklyn office (Braylen Dion for TIME)
Lee in February with a game-worn Robinson jacket and two TIME covers—Robinson on the right—he displays at his Brooklyn office
Braylen Dion for TIME

The deal Jackie made with Branch Rickey was that no matter what, he couldn’t fight back. NO MATTER WHAT. Imagine the pressure. The entirety of African American progress is on your shoulders. The thing I feel kept the great Jackie Robinson safe and grounded is Rachel Robinson, who just turned 100 years young. She was his Rock. She knew the Hell he was going through, especially in 1947, the year of his major-­league debut and of his TIME cover, a cover that now hangs in my office—before Rickey signed other Black players like Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. This strong Black Woman stood by his side and loved him. I have gotten to know Ms. Robinson over the years. She is the definition of GRACE. She reminds me of my Grandmother Zimmie Shelton; she lived to be 100 years young too. These Black Women, pillars of our communities, stood by their Men, who, under the tyranny of White Supremacy in this country, were denied their manhood. Our Grandparents and Parents, these Warriors, did what W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, with their different ideologies, championed: Uplift the Race.

When I was writing my original screenplay for Do the Right Thing, I knew I had to honor Jackie Roosevelt Robinson in this third Spike Lee Joint. Mookie proudly wore Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers home jersey, number 42. Major League Baseball retired Jackie’s number 42 in 1997; my question is: What took them so long?

Lee is a writer, director, and producer

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