What Jackie Robinson Can Teach Business

Earlier this month the Major League Baseball Association celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. Every player wore Robinson’s jersey number 42 to commemorate Robinson who was the first African-American to play in the league.

When Robinson walked onto Ebbets Field on April 15th, 1947 he broke a deeply entrenched color barrier in baseball. He was only 28 years old. He must have been scared. He must have felt alone. But in front of 25,000 spectators (many of whom hurled racist insults at him), he played first base and went zero for three at the plate. He spent ten years in baseball, earning the league’s Most Valuable Player (1949), and election to the Baseball Hall of Fame (1962).

But his individual achievements and success in baseball were secondary. Robinson knew he had a larger role to play in affecting change for others. He became a civil rights champion during a time of segregation and racial division in America while simultaneously holding prominent positions in American business.

In 1958 he served as President of Chock Full O’ Nuts Corporation (also becoming the first African-American head of a corporation). In that role he did not turn a deaf ear to the civil rights movement. Outraged by attempts of the Arkansas governor to prevent entry of 9 African-American students into Little Rock’s Central High School, Robinson penned a letter to President Eisenhower. While Eisenhower advised “patience” in matters pertaining to civil rights, Robinson knew that the time had come for action.

His letter should be required reading for business leaders. It shows a business leader unafraid of confronting injustice.

Robinson wrote:

“We cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change. We want to enjoy the rights that we feel we are entitled to as Americans. This we cannot do unless we pursue aggressively goals which all other Americans achieved over 150 years ago.”

Robinson’s letter resonates loudly today. African-Americans still struggle with having adequate employment and educational opportunities. And a growing wealth divide has become a new form of de-facto segregation among all racial/ethnic groups.

Yet few business leaders speak on these issues or implement company policies to raise wages, invest in labor, or make new investments to grow. I doubt Robinson would be impressed with job cuts and share buybacks designed to boost share prices and executive compensation.

When Robinson retired from baseball in 1957 and became President of Chock Full O’Nuts he could have taken up golf and five martini lunches like the rest of the business establishment. But he didn’t. His commitment to equal rights was unflagging. The struggles he personally endured were linked to the ones the rest of the African-American community still faced. He did not excuse himself from participating in the on-going struggle. Rather as a business leader he became one of its greatest advocates.

Robinson famously said:

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

If he were here today, he might ask business leaders what impact their policies have on those who are struggling.