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From Pepper Street Gang to Glorious Brooklyn: Jackie Robinson’s faith journey

The Pepper Street gang created an epidemic of petty theft and malicious mischief. The members weren’t serious gangbangers like those in south Los Angeles today. Rather, they were a bunch of kids hanging together and getting in trouble. But to the store owners who were the targets of their small thefts, the car owners and [...]

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Jackie Robinson

Illustration by A Journey through NYC religions

The Pepper Street gang created an epidemic of petty theft and malicious mischief. The members weren’t serious gangbangers like those in south Los Angeles today. Rather, they were a bunch of kids hanging together and getting in trouble. But to the store owners who were the targets of their small thefts, the car owners and the mostly white neighbors who had broken windows from the thrown rocks, the gang members were miserable trouble. The whites resented the presence of the Robinsons and even burned a cross on their lawn. To the police the Pepper Street’s leader Jackie Robinson was a priority take-down.

Mallie Robinson, Jackie’s mother, was a woman of powerful Christian faith. She knew that the Lord would answer her prayers for her son who was born on January 31, 1919 in Georgia. God had already provided after she had been abandoned by her husband Jerry Robinson in 1920 for another woman (the family never heard from him until the news of his death). Her children fondly remember her favorite piety, “the Lord took care of us.” Jessie Maxwell, a niece who lived with the Robinsons, remembers that “Mama was teaching all along…to be in the will of God.” Hell was being out of the will of God. But her son surely needed a father figure to show him how to live into God’s will.

The Robinson family in Pasadena (left to right: Mack, Jack, Mallie, Edgar, Willa Mae, Frank

The Robinson family in Pasadena (left to right: Mack, Jack, Mallie, Edgar, Willa Mae, Frank

A 25-year old reverend named Karl Everitt Downs came to the Scott United Methodist Church and seemed to be an answer to prayer. She enjoined Downs to reach out to her son. The pastor had heard about this mischief-making Pepper Street gang. At about the same time a local mechanic Carl Anderson reached for a Scriptural metaphor that influenced Robinson. The mechanic told the young boy that he should not be like a sheep following what the other gang members were doing.

Rev Karl Downs, wife Marian & Karleen in the early 1940s.

Rev Karl Downs, wife Marian & Karleen in the early 1940s.

Downs was another shepherd going after the lost sheep. He dropped by the gang hangout street corner asking for the young Robinson. No one would identify their leader who was standing amidst them. He left a message, “Tell him I want to see him at junior church.” Somehow the pastor got Robinson’s attention and the young leader visited the church. Downs proposed that the gang build a youth center for the church. And they did. In the end Jackie became a Sunday school teacher at the church and formed a friendship with Downs. The ex-gang leader turned his attention back to his studies and sports. After high school, he went to UCLA where he lettered in four sports: baseball; football; basketball; and track.

“Downs led Jack back to Christ,” biographer Arnold Rampersad wrote in 1997. “Under the minister’s influence, Jack not only returned to church, but also saw its true significance for the first time; he started to teach Sunday school. After punishing football games on Saturday, Jack admitted, he yearned to sleep late: ‘But no matter how terrible I felt, I had to get up. It was impossible to shirk duty when Karl Downs was involved….Karl Downs had the ability to communicate with you spiritually,’ Jack declared, ‘and at the same time he was fun to be with. He participated with us in our sports. Most importantly, he knew how to listen. Often when I was deeply concerned about personal crises, I went to him.’

“Downs became a conduit through which Mallie’s message of religion and hope finally flowed into Jack’s consciousness and was fully accepted there….Faith in God then began to register in him as both a mysterious force, beyond his comprehension, and as a pragmatic way to negotiate the world. A measure of emotional and spiritual poise such as he had never known at last entered his life.”

Robinson himself would say, “I had a lot of faith in God….There’s nothing like faith in God to help a fellow who gets booted around once in a while.”

The war delayed the marriage of Jackie & Rachel, presided over by Rev. Downs.

The war delayed the marriage of Jackie & Rachel, presided over by Rev. Downs.

Both Robinson and Downs ended up in Texas where the close relationship continued. The college graduate owed the United States Army some time and after making the rank of second lieutenant was assigned to a tank battalion at Fort Hood in 1943. Downs was about forty miles south in Austin where he was president of Samuel Huston College, a Methodist institution. On weekends Robinson often went south to talk with Downs and attend church. Downs helped Robinson deal with the racial enmity that he experienced in the army, lessons that would serve Robinson well when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. The pastor married Robinson and his sweetheart Rachel Isum in 1946.

Shortly after Robinson’s muster out of the army, the pastor hired his friend to coach at Huston College while the young man weighed the possibilities of a professional baseball career.

Robinson joined the Negro leagues and prospered. When Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was contemplating integrating the white baseball leagues by hiring an African American, he searched the leagues for the right player. He decided upon Robinson partly because of the player’s faith-commitments would serve as moral ballast against the harsh opposition that he was sure to encounter from the many racist Americans. For his part Robinson felt that God had predestined him for the role. This conviction gave him a lot of strength to persevere and keep in mind the greater task of advancing the rights of African Americans.

During a now legendary three and half meeting of the two men in August 1945, Rickey directed Robinson’s attention to a Bible verse in a Catholic book about Jesus. The verse was taken from the Sermon on the Mount. Robinson read it, ‘Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right check, turn to him the other also. And if a man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.’”

The young player looked back up at Dodger owner and said he guessed Rickey was asking if Robinson could turn the other cheek when he was insulted or hit by bean balls from racist pitchers.

“I have two cheeks, Mr. Rickey,” Robinson answered. “Is that it?”

The handshake between Robinson & Rickey that changed professional baseball.

The handshake between Robinson & Rickey that changed professional baseball.

Afterwards, Rickey told the press, “He’s a Methodist, I’m a Methodist, God’s a Methodist. We can’t go wrong.” The folksy line had a marketable purpose. The Methodists were the sort of mainline evangelical church that had middle class adherents all over the country, both in the north and the south.

Rickey sent Robertson into the Dodger farm team system first. Then, he told the young player to come to New York City.

African Americans in the city held a big banquet to welcome Robinson. There he and his wife met Rev. Lacy and Mrs. Florence Covington, who became fast friends. The Covingtons found out that Robinson and his wife were looking for a place to live near the Dodger’s ballpark Ebbets Field. The housing market for African Americans in New York City was severely constricted by segregation. The Robinsons were staying in the McAlpin Hotel in Manhattan before moving.

Rev Lacy & Mrs. Florence Covington opened their home to Robinsons as if they were family.

Rev Lacy & Mrs. Florence Covington opened their home to Robinsons as if they were family.

The Covingtons opened their home to the Robinsons. In 1947 the couple moved to a small place at 526 MacDonough Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant which was about four blocks from the Covington’s brownstone on Stuyvesant Avenue near Fulton Street and the Nazarene Baptist Church where the reverend was assistant pastor.

On April 15, 1947 at Ebbets Field Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers. Over half of the audience was African Americans. The event was an electric moment for New Yorkers. Brooklyn became a moral exemplar to all Americans and the center of African American hopes and fears. Pete Hamill remembers the moment. Robinson’s arrival, Hamill wrote, “added another dimension to being a Dodger fan, although as kids we did not name it. That dimension was moral. It was about right and wrong. ‘This is America godammit!,’ my father said. We became the most American place in the country.”

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell remembers that African Americans in his block in the Bronx, called “Banana Kelley,” were so scared that racists would hound Robinson into miserable performance thus giving them an excuse for their bigotry. Though a Giant fan, Powell was praying, “Oh Lord, don’t let him strike out.” Interestingly, Hamill also says that “I remember praying for him. Please God, let Jackie Robinson hit. Don't let him fail. If he fails, we all fail. Let him hit. Let him hit.” There evidently was a lot of praying taking place.

Hamill and his friends and Powell and his friends were gasping in relief when the Dodgers won Robinson’s first game 5-3.

The African American churches reinforced Robinson’s prayerful attitude toward his play. Each night he knelt down in prayer before going to bed. And every Sunday that the Dodgers had a home game, the Robinsons would have lunch with the Covingtons after church. (Today, the Nazarene Congregational Church meets at 506 MacDonough Street under the leadership of Rev. Conrad Tillard.)

Leaving the good food & spirituality of the Covingtons' house on Sunday.

Leaving the good food & spirituality of the Covingtons' house on Sunday.

In a few years the Robinsons moved to the Sugar Hill Section of St. Albans, Queens where they lived next door to the Satlaws, some Jewish friends also from Brooklyln. The new New Yorkers were still unfamiliar with the religious customs of Jews. Noticing that their friends next door didn’t have a Christmas tree and thinking that they were too poor to buy one, Robinson bought them one. The Satlaws were graceful to overlook their friend’s misunderstanding for years, remembering to biographer David Falkner, “and we had a tree every year since.”

In the Fall of 1954 the Robinsons moved to Connecticut for a quieter neighborhood and better schools for their kids. His daughter was married in the North Stamford Congregational Church. After baseball, Robinson hosted a television program for the Methodist church, promoted faith-based social services and supported the civil rights movement. However, Robinson never lost his close connections to his Brooklyn church.

Robinson spoke at many churches and synagogues about civil rights, Biblical values and helping the needy.

Robinson spoke at many churches and synagogues about civil rights, Biblical values and helping the needy.

On October 23, 1972 Robinson busied himself gathering food supplies from wholesalers near his business office in New Jersey. As he collected the donations, he didn’t feel well. However, as was his habit, he was determined to make his weekly delivery to the food pantry at his old church in Brooklyn. Returning that evening for dinner with his family, he mentioned that he didn’t feel well. In the early morning hours Robinson passed away from a heart attack.

The baseball player had placed himself in a world populated by churches and many pastoral friends. His funeral at Riverside Church was like a church civil rights conference. His old friend Lacy Covington read Scriptures that told of Robinson’s beliefs. Reverend Jesse Jackson delivered a very tactile funeral oration on “his body was a temple, a temple which was used to achieve God’s will.” In every powerful move, Robinson’s athleticism honored God and the Biblical values. Like Reverend Martin Luther King, he had turned the other cheek so that others might have dignity. Reverends Wyatt T. Walker, Earnest Campbell, and George Lawrence also participated in the service. Their messages about Robinson’s faith were punctuated by hymns that the baseball star loved during his career.

The Recording Choir from Canaan Baptist Church poignantly sang “Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen. Roberta Flack, perhaps Robinson’s favorite singer, sang “I told Jesus.” He was buried in Cyprus Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Robinson was surely defined by the age in which he was born. He also helped to define the age that we now live. He wrote his own epitaph for his tombstone that could read as motto for our lives today: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

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Brooklyn Dodger sportscaster Red Barber says that the Jackie Robinson story is the story of a spiritual man who didn't hit back.

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Quotes are mainly from David Falkner’s Great Time Coming (1995) and Arnold Rampersad’s Jackie Robinson ( 1997). Resources also used were Jackie Robinson’s Jackie Robinson. My own story (1948);  Sharon Robinson. 1997. Stealing Home. An intimate family portrait; Pete Hamill, “The Scene,” New York Daily News, April 13, 1997; Pete Hamill, Piecework (2009); and Jonathan Eig, Opening Day (2008).  We also consulted the archives of the New York Public Library and Columbia University and interviewed quite a few religious leaders and others in Jackie Robinson’s old Brooklyn neighborhood. We will run several stories from those interviews.

The digitally enhanced photos are used with permission from Rachel Robinson's Jackie Robinson. An Intimate Portrait (1996), Ernest C. Withers, Negro League Baseball (2004), and the archives of the New York Public Library.

10 Responses to “From Pepper Street Gang to Glorious Brooklyn: Jackie Robinson’s faith journey” Leave a reply ›

  • Great report !! The video with Red Barber is wonder-full "icing on the cake"!!
    Keep up the excellent work.

  • Thanks. Red Barber is one of my all-time favorite sports broadcasters.

  • A side of Jackie we don't always hear about.

  • I went to a friend's wedding a couple years ago at Brooklyn Heights' Plymouth Church, where I'm told a key decision-maker in Robinson's hiring (Rickey himself maybe?) went to pray about it.

  • Like this!

  • Great!

  • Hi there, I enjoy reading all of your articles. I like to write a little comment to support you.

  • Thank you for the article.

  • Understand Robinson a lot better. Thanks!

  • Thanks too!

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