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A Conversation About Racism And Baseball
2/3/2016 6:01:37 PM

By Barney Blakeney

I regretted missing the Dec. 9 conversation on race in America with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and Harvard Professor Louis Gates Jr. at Gaillard Center. I’d seen both their work on SCETV and gained respect for them. So I jumped at the chance to do a follow up interview with Burns. I’ve got much respect for the brother’s approach to film making.

The pair was in Charleston on the first stop of a series of events to be held in Washington, D.C. and other cities that will engage people about the subject of race in America. I know that Burns keeps it real in his documentaries, but having missed the Gaillard Center event that came about after the pair called Charleston Mayor Joe Riley in the wake of the racially inspired June 17 mass murders at Emanuel AME Church, I didn’t know what to expect in the interview.

It was an amazing conversation first thing Friday morning. I found it hopeful to hear the thoughts of a smart white guy with the intellect, propensity and ability to address racism in our society in ways that really have an impact. A lot of folks talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. They have the ability to make a difference, but choose to stay in their comfort zones. Burns puts it out there.

I was impressed that the guy called me. Too often, when people reach a certain professional plateau, you have to deal with them through intermediaries. But this guy came at me up close and personal - like he knows me! This guy is world class professional. I’m a small town newspaper writer, but he’s talking to me like one of the guys. It said something about his character.

My daddy taught me never to be impressed with a man. You may be impressed by what a man does, but a man is just a man. He puts his pants on one leg at a time the same way I do. But I was impressed. What I found impressive about Burns’ interview was how this really smart guy uses his intelligence to affect some issues that seriously impact all our lives. Racism in America is territory we don’t venture into, Burns said. “We never talk about the ‘color line’. We talk about crossing it, but what is it? What is that line we talk about crossing? Meanwhile some kid in Chicago gets shot 16 times.”

He said America must be willing to take that next step. We have to be willing to move to where it’s been uncomfortable to go. He and Gates are experimenting with that idea through their conversations on race. They also hope to facilitate that conversation through the films they’ve produced soon to air on Public Broadcasting Stations around the country. Burns’ film, ‘Jackie Robinson’ airs April 11 and 12. Gates’ film ‘Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise’ airs April 18 and 19.

Burns said his film about the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson is an attempt to explore how that American icon’s life transcended the effort to integrate professional sports. Robinson was a fierce integrationist who used his fame to speak out against discrimination. But that ferocity surfaced long before Robinson donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and lasted long after he retired it.

The four-hour two-part film chronicles Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier and his lifelong fight for equality on and off the field. It also tells the story of Robinson’s battles for first class citizenship from his humble origin in rural Georgia through his remarkable athletic achievements. Born in 1919 he demanded service at a Woolworth lunch counter while still a teenager and refused to sit in the segregated balcony at a local movie theater.

Burns said his film about Robinson not only looks at the athlete integrationist whose life might well influence athletes of today, but it also looks at the impact fame and notoriety had on Robinson’s family - a family thrust into the center of a racial climate of intolerance. It is superimposed over today’s experiences of Driving While Black and Black Lives Matter. Despite all his effort, at the end of his life Robinson still never saw a Black manager of a professional baseball team, Burns noted.

As we talked I thought about my personal desire not to make the interview a promo for Burns’ new film. That’s what his PR people get paid to do. But it had become immediately obvious that the interview and its subject was bigger than some film promotion. It was an opportunity for me to have a one on one conversation with one of the most talented and far-reaching individuals of our lifetime.

Ya’ll, Ken Burns is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. The stories he tells is of historic significance. I’m gonna watch Jackie Robinson. I advise you do the same.

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