Moses Fleetwood Walker and the Knucklehead

The Knucklehead is 10.

When Jackie Robinson came to the majors in 1947, it was of course, decades overdue. We baseball fans love to point to Jackie Robinson’s debut as a progressive moment that led the nation in the battle for civil rights for all Americans, and there is some truth to that. Certainly, the courage required and displayed by Jackie and Rachel Robinson continue to inspire today. But it should have happened earlier. Much earlier, and it should not have required decades more to pass before major league baseball recognized the intellectual, and not just physical acumen the Negro Leagues brought to the game. So when non-baseball fans point to the strokes of hypocrisy staining the self-congratulatory portrait we fans like to paint of The Day Jackie Robinson Ended Discrimination in Baseball, I get it. Yes, the Robinsons, and Branch Rickey and the Dodgers showed great strength in integrating, but we baseball fans tend to point to that day and say, “Problem solved,” and move on. So when people doubt the power of that day in the moral upbringing of a young man, there’s something else I like to point to.

The way history is taught in our schools, we get an impression of constant movement forward. We look at our history as a river of progress, moving ever forward to more inclusivity, more diversity, more understanding, more equality. There are great landmarks along the way, requiring the sacrifice of brave men and women, but we tend to look at them as sort of pre-ordained. We’ve always had forward progress in this country, and if people like Jackie Robinson, or Susan B. Anthony, or Harvey Milk hadn’t stood up when they had, well, somebody else probably would have. After all, we don’t go backwards in this country, the river ever flows downstream.

Except that it’s not true, not in history, and not in baseball. Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first black man to play in the major leagues in this country. There’s disagreement as to who had that first distinction (sports records at the time were spotty at best; after all, in the late 19th century, such a hooligan’s activity as baseball hardly deserved careful documentation), but Moses Fleetwood Walker, and his brother Welday were playing for Toledo as early as 1884. At any given time you had up to a half dozen black men playing professional baseball in this country. It was never easy, but at least it was possible. Yet by the turn of the century, major league baseball in this country reverted to an all-white business. How did this happen? Is it possible we took a step backward in our history?

We did, and it wasn’t just in baseball. During the time of Wilson administration in this country, a terrible wave of racism swept across the country, and baseball was only one of our institutions caught up in it. After he left baseball, Moses Fleetwood Walker became (among other things) a writer who saw no solution to the race division in America, and was vocal in a campaign to emigrate to Africa.  So when Jackie Robinson took the Field with the Dodgers in 1947, he wasn’t really breaking new ground. He was fighting just to regain a small part of ceded territory.

The reason I taught The Knucklehead about Jackie Robinson and Moses Fleetwood Walker is to teach him that we must never stop fighting for what we believe is right. Progress is not inevitable, it is only made through the deliberate will and effort of good people. Not only is it possible to lose ground, it happens all the time. We cannot rest on the victories of those who went before us, or it will become necessary for us to fight those victories again. And when good people win honorable victories, it is not because it is inevitable, or because society is ready for what they have to say. It is because they had the extraordinary courage to say what few around them wanted to hear, and it is the courage required of us if we choose to be moral people in this world.

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