Thoughts and images from the Civil Rights Museum on Jackie Robinson Day in Memphis

When baseball is in your blood, you can mark the passage of time by the baseball calendar. Winter gives way to spring training, which quickly becomes the regular season, then the second half, the stretch run, the playoffs and the World Series, and then the cycle ends as it begins again.

Like any religious calendar, the baseball calendar has its holidays, too. A couple weeks ago, I wrote about Opening Day. That's one of my favorite days of the year.

Yesterday was Jackie Robinson Day — the 61-year anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier by becoming the first Black player in otherwise-all-white Major League Baseball (technically Jackie was not the first ever, but the first since Moses Fleetwood Walker played a season in the big leagues in the 1880s, but that’s another story).

This year, I spent the day in Memphis with my family, and it turns out I couldn’t have commemorated the day any better.

When I was 22 and freshly out of college, I moved to Memphis to work as an intern for the Redbirds, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate, and it was the first real adventure of my adult life. I only stayed the one season, and now suddenly I hadn’t been back to Memphis in 13 years.

I flew into Memphis on Saturday, the boys and I tagging along with my partner who came to town for a conference.

After a late breakfast on Sunday morning, the four of us walked to the Civil Rights Museum together. We saw the spot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was standing when he was assassinated. We saw the window across the street from which the shot was fired. We saw the rooms where he and his friends had been sleeping, preserved as they had been 50 years ago.


We saw a replica of the jail cell from which King wrote his now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he calls out the plague of the white moderate that we still can't shake today.

Julian in MLK jail cell

We also found our home city mentioned in the display on integrating schools and neighborhoods.

"In response to several lawsuits against the school district, Seattle schools began mandatory busing to desegregate its public schools in the 1970s. The program continued for more than twenty years, but gradually lost publics support and resulted in "white flight" as more white families moved to the suburbs. In 1999, the school board decided to allow any student in the district to attend any school of their choice, and the busing program was dismantled."
Seattle Busing Civil Rights Museum
Seattle Busing

I contemplated the reality of the fear King faced down in being arrested as often as he was by white police forces. I considered again the realities we might all be facing, and wondered again how brave I would be able to be in such situations, and what my kids' roles would be in this story. And we found this sad story of a brave white accomplice in 1950s Montgomery:

Juliette Morgan Civil Rights Museum
Julian Bond

And then, after a couple hours at the Civil Rights Museum, we hopped in a Lyft and got a ride to AutoZone Park. We completed the Jackie Robinson Day celebration by watching the Redbirds play the Iowa Cubs in 45-degree weather.

Rockey the Rockin' Redbird

The game was great — lots of personal nostalgia mixed together with the strange charm of a sparsely attended minor league baseball game. And it was a good reminder to enjoy life now and then, even as so much happening around me seems like such a disaster. Sometimes I forget there can be time to exhale and have fun -- which is pretty much all I did back when I lived in Memphis. Now, I find myself too often having lost sight of the light at the end of the tunnel.

We need balance. It can't be all fun and games, not when things are the way they are, but without a spirit of life and laughter, the struggle has no soul.