'42' brings focus to Jackie Robinson's birthplace

Dr. Linda I. Walden, a third cousin of Jackie Robinson, poses by a portrait of the Dodger, star commemorating the 50th anniversary of his Major League debut, that hangs in her office in Cairo, the town where Robinson was born before his family moved to California a year later.

CAIRO, Ga. -- Jack Hadley is walking through his Black History Museum in Thomasville, pointing to one African-American pioneer after another.

"He opened the door, and he opened the door and he opened the door,'' Hadley said. "And he opened the door and he opened the door so that he, Barack Obama, could be president.''

Hadley's point was crystal clear as he walked through history.

Then there was the door for Jackie Robinson. He didn't just open it. Robinson kicked it down.

And that means even more to Hadley, one of Robinson's few relatives who live in southwest Georgia. Robinson, the man who broke the color line in big league baseball in 1947, changing life for African Americans like no man before him, was born in Cairo, a tiny town tucked away in the southwest corner of the state.

Hadley and others believe when the new film "42" is released in theaters on Friday and Robinson's story is told that a wave of awareness will sweep the country, and that Cairo will be lifted by its very roots and shaken like never before.

"I think people know about the story of Jackie Robinson,'' Hadley said. "But they don't know the story, and I think this movie is going to change that. And it will change the people in this community, because he was born here.''

There is little doubt when the movie is released that Dr. Linda I. Walden will weep that day -- tears of joy.

Walden, a third cousin of Robinson, lives in Cairo today. Her dream is for America to know the story of Robinson's struggles and for Cairo to appreciate and embrace the man who was born there and rose to such great heights. Robinson was born just outside Cairo in 1919, but his mother took the family to Pasadena, Calif., the next year, where she raised five children as a single mother.

"He was born here,'' she said, sitting in her office on Friday. "He was the grandson of slaves and the son of sharecroppers and he became one of the great Americans of all time. And he came from here in Grady County. This movie is going to change the way people feel about Jackie Robinson throughout the country and here in Cairo."

Walden owns the property where Robinson was born and she was the force that put a historical marker on the property. There's nothing left of the 150-year-old house except the chimney that still stands. Walden, who grew up in New York and went to school in New York, Florida and Mercer University in Macon, has been resurrecting Robinson's name in Cairo since she moved there.

"When I came here in 1996, there was nothing here with Jackie Robinson's name on it,'' she said. "I decided I would do everything I could do to honor the name of Jackie Robinson so young people will know what a difference he made in this country.''


Walden is a pioneer herself. When she came to Cairo, she became the first female M.D. to practice medicine in Grady County. It was her efforts that resulted in the city naming the main street that leads to downtown Cairo "The Jackie Robinson Memorial Highway."

For the past 12 years she has sponsored an annual essay contest for students from Cairo and nearby Thomasville in which they must write a 300-word essay on "How the life of Jackie Robinson made a difference in your life.'' This year's winner was Kyle Clark, a white seventh-grader from Thomasville..

In 1997 -- the 50th anniversary of Robinson's breakthrough -- Walden established the Jackie Robinson Cairo Memorial Institute with the dream of raising money to establish an endowment fund, a scholarship fund, to erect a bronze statue of Robinson, and to build a museum for Robinson and the Jackie Robinson Cairo Memorial Institute/Performing Arts Center.

She is a remarkable woman who believes the movie will change lives.

"It will have a huge impact,'' she said. "I'm so glad it's coming out. I'm excited about the movie. It gives young people the opportunity to learn about what he did and what he went through. I believe it will inspire.''

Cairo made a monumental move just last month when on March 15 the city renamed The Boys and Girls Club "The Jackie Robinson Boys and Girls Club of Cairo and Grady County.'' Robinson's daughter, Sharon Robinson, attended the ceremony, along with former boxer Evander Holyfield and Roosevelt Jackson, the oldest living member of the Negro Leagues.

The timing of the Jackie Robinson Boys and Girls Club, a sparkling state-of-the-art facility, and the release of the movie couldn't have been better.

"The movie was kind of a catalyst. We had been talking to the Robinson family for a couple of years before we knew about the movie,'' said Charles Renaud, one of the founders of the Boys and Girls Club in Cairo and the force behind naming it for Robinson. "Once the movie was coming out, everybody saw this as a great opportunity to rename the Boys and Girls Club.''

The renaming of the facility was more than symbolic. It united Cairo and Robinson.

"There was a dinner before the ceremony to rename the Boys and Girls Club,'' said Hadley, who was among the guests. "And during the dinner the county commissioner (T.D. Davis) said that in his 42 years he had never seen Cairo -- blacks and whites -- come together like this. The Boys and Girls Club did bring Cairo together, and I think this movie coming out will bring Cairo together even more.''


Many feel that Cairo and America will rediscover what Robinson went through to change life in this country.

"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'There is no civil rights movement without Jackie Robinson,''' Renaud said. "You didn't have to be there in 1947 to appreciate what he did.

"The movie coming out is a plus for us,'' he said, referring to Cairo and the club. "There is a sense of pride in Cairo for sure because he was born here. You can't imagine what he went through. Imagine taking that on. He had to have the courage to do it. The movie is going to open some eyes.

"We have to have the courage to put aside our racial, economic and political differences. If we can find common ground in Cairo then we can find common ground in Atlanta and we can find common ground in Washington. We're fractured and splintered (as a nation) and hopefully this will help put us back together."

Robinson's ordeal was unique for many reasons. It's difficult for anyone in the 21st century to understand what his life was like, and what breaking the color line in baseball meant. America was segregated to its very core, and Major League Baseball represented the epitome of racism because it was not only the national pastime in an era in which no one cared about professional football or basketball the way America loved baseball, but it was a well-known fact that African Americans such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and a long list of others would be stars in the majors if they were given the chance.

Baseball's insistence to remain an all-white establishment all but seemed to justify to many Americans the racist grip segregation had on this country. Breaking the color line in baseball literally changed life in America.

"When he started playing for the Dodgers, you could see change immediately,'' said Lulu Hadley Walden, who is Linda Walden's mother and who married Robinson's cousin. "You could see there were more black entertainers and things were just different. New York was different (from the South), but it changed things. Things moved quickly. It was a great time.''

Walden, who now lives in Cairo, was married to Robinson's cousin and her sister married Robinson's brother, Mack, who won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash 1936 Olympics, finishing right behind Jesse Owens. She knew Robinson well and went to many games in Brooklyn.

"He was a gentleman, a distinguished man,'' she said. "On the baseball field, he was so fast. He could steal a base just like that. We had great times going to see his games."


Robinson's success (he retired as a lifetime .311 hitter) had lasting impact, and Walden said he gave every hope for a better tomorrow.

"He had great backing (from African Americans),'' she said. "The whole nation was behind him. We were very proud of him.''

Hadley said when Robinson was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers that, "Every black man was a Dodgers fan.''

It was that way for many years. Robinson was more than a superstar on the diamond; he was a symbol, a walking-talking sense of pride for every African American. Today one of the principal owners of the Dodgers is an African American, retired NBA star Magic Johnson. And Robinson's uniform number, 42, has been retired by every Major League team in recognition of his impact on the game and society.

Robinson paid the price of a racist nation. The majority of the players in the majors were from the South and Robinson was abused like no athlete before or since -- by opponents, fans and even his own teammates.

"People are going to sit there and watch this movie and grit their teeth when they see the abuses he took,'' Hadley said. "But they really need to see this movie. People need to know what he had to put up with, the abuses he had to withstand.''

When Spike Lee's movie "Malcom X" was released, Lee said the schools should close and allow the students to go see the movie as an educational tool. Hadley doesn't think schools should necessarily close, but he does believe everyone should see "42."

"I think churches and organizations should donate money and make sure every young person -- black and white -- sees the movie,'' he said. "Our young people don't realize what black people went through. If they realized what black people went through we would have a better nation. Young people need to go see this movie, especially young black people.''

Hadley said today's America doesn't grasp what was at stake when Robinson took the field on April 15, 1947.

"It showed that we could succeed and excel not only in baseball, but in everything that we do," said Hadley, who runs the Jack Hadley Museum of Black History in Thomasville, which has an impressive exhibit displaying of the struggles of African Americans. "It brought great change to the civil rights movement for every black man. This generation needs to understand that. This movie is important. Our kids need to know the struggles he went through.''

Hadley will set up a Jackie Robinson exhibit at the theater in Thomasville, where "42" will be shown, and he expects large crowds from Cairo and Thomasville to show up for the film.

"There's no movie theater in Cairo, so many of the people there will probably come to Thomasville to see the movie," Hadley said. "The people in Cairo and Thomasville will be proud of it, proud that he is from here. This movie will put Cairo on the map.''

Walden, who is Hadley's niece, said no one knows the impact the film might have on Cairo.

"I think the movie will bring more tourists to Cairo,'' she said. "People are going to want to see where Jackie Robinson was born.''


The film will also show the kind of man Robinson was -- not just a sports star, but a man of incredible determination and fortitude and character. It's been well documented that when Brooklyn General Manager Branch Rickey made the decision to bring an African American to the Dodgers, he searched long and hard to find not just a superstar but the right man -- one who wouldn't fight back as he fought for a greater cause.

"It's called 'The Noble Experiment,'" Dr. Walden said. "Jackie Robinson was chosen not because of his athletic talent, but because he was an intellectual. He had a degree from UCLA and that's what stood out -- the man he was, the character he had as a man. He was very outspoken and he had a passion for mankind.

"He was ahead of Rosa Parks. When he was in the military, he refused to move to the back of the bus and give up his seat on the bus (to a white woman) and he was court martialed for it. That was later reversed and he left the military with an honorable discharge. He served in World War II and was a second lieutenant in the Army. When they chose him to (break the color line), it wasn't about baseball. It was about justice, about civil rights. When Branch Rickey asked him if he had the guts not to fight back, he told Rickey, 'Give me a uniform and I'll give you the guts not to fight back.'"

She hopes the movie will be an inspiration.

"In this movie you're really not going to see it as gruesome as it was, but they will have an idea of what he went through,'' she said. "He was a spiritual man who was close to God. Young black boys need to look up to him to be their example, their role model, and to be like Jackie and never say never.

"This movie will motivate the young people to teach them their lives can be better and that circumstances don't dictate your future. It's what you have in you -- just like Jackie Robinson. He grew up in a single-parent home and it didn't keep him from achieving. He excelled and went to college and became one of the greatest Americans of all time."

Robinson's legacy will last forever, and the movie has the potential to have an impact in many ways -- especially in Cairo, where his story will be reborn.

"You need to remember where you come from, and he was born here. He carried the burden for a nation,'' Walden said. "He died a young man (he was 53) in 1972 from a heart attack, and I think Jackie died young because he carried the burden of our people. That can do a lot to your heart. He endured all those injustices to open the doors for others.''

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