Meet the Press   |  April 14, 2013

3: Behind Jackie Robinson’s legacy

Actor Harrison Ford, filmmaker Ken Burns and Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, visit Meet the Press to discuss the man behind the legend.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

and we're pack. 66 years since jackie robinson broke the color barrier in baseball . it was a big moment then, and it is just as important now even for a generation coming of age with president obama . a new movie is out about his life called "42." it's jackie robinson day throughout major league baseball tomorrow. we'll hear from harrison ford who i spoke with for press pass this week. he plays dodger owner branch ricky in the film. here with me documentary filmmaker ken burns and jackie robinson 's wife of 26 years, rachel robinson . mrs. robinson , it is just an honor too much you here. thank you very much.

>> oh, thank you for having me. i'm so thrilled about the film that i love talking about it.

>> and, ken, always great to see you. let me start with you, mrs. robinson . it construction me that you were recently at the white house and the first lady spoke so enthusiastically about this film. she made the observation about how much has changed since jackie robinson broke the color barrier in baseball . what strikes you about how relevant jackie robinson 's story is even today?

>> oh, i think it is relevant. i think one needs to know, particularly young people , need to know the history of that era so that they can make comparisons between then and now and we have made a lot of progress in america, but we still have a long way to go before we can say that we have equality of opportunity for everyone.

>> it is amazing, ken burns , the first african- american president and first lady. and yet the relevance of this story is perhaps swrund lined by the fact there are so many people who don't know the story even those who are in major league baseball , younger african-american players.

>> that's been the tragedy of it. we've overcome a lot of that in recent years. the mlb has reached out. we have to put jackie in the historical context. he's the first since the civil war . you know, this is happening not at a lunch counter, not in a bus in montgomery, alabama, but on 0 the diamonds of our so-called national pastime . he single-handedly transforms american social life that april afternoon in 1947 . he is as important in many ways as martin luther king . his example is timeless because this isn't just a good story about sports and those of us who love baseball love the story of jackie robinson . this isn't just a good american story. this is almost a biblical story of such human importance, about a man who could exhibit the kind of forbearance jackie robinson did and do the things he did for so long against such formidable odds of thousands of racial slights, threats, and abuses that he faced every single day in a game that requires, as george will calls it, an equipoise. you can't hit the ball with a bat if you're worried about your wife being hurt, your baby boy being kidnapped, worried about someone shooting you or putting black cats out on the field, that your own teammates are spiking you or the opposing guys are throwing at your head and he does it all and, to me, he's one of the greatest heroes in all of american history .

>> mrs. robinson , to what extent did your husband feel that weight, that responsibility, that sense of significance real time ? martin luther king wrote in 1962 of your husband. he was a sit-inner before the sit-in. he talked how much what jackie robinson did was important to what he, martin luther king jr ., was able to do.

>> he certainly felt the responsibility that goes with being a pioneer. he needed -- he wanted to not only focus on his role in playing the game but also in being out front with this process of fighting discrimination, fighting racism, and doing it in a dignified and a positive way.

>> how difficult was it for him? he was on this program, on "meet the press" back in 1957 , and you got a sense of the importance of civil rights and politics to him when he was asked a question on this program. listen to it.

>> how do you answer those people who insist the naacp is moving very, very fast to get the rights of the negro but seems to be doing not enough to impress upon the negro his own responsibility as he gets these rights?

>> i think that if we go back and check our record the negro has proven beyond a doubt that we have been more than patient in seeking our rights as american citizens. be patient, i was told as a kid. i keep hearing that today, let's be patient. let's take our time. things will come. it seems to me the civil war has been over 90 years. if that isn't patience, i don't know what is.

>> there is a natural sense i take of activism, of his impatience that propelled him forward. how did he reconcile that with the incredible patience that was necessary to endure everything he did back in 1947 and beyond?

>> well, he was a passionate advocate for change and social change . however, he also understood that there were anything he did that was contrary to what was expected might destroy the opportunity, so he was careful and patient in his behavior on the field and off the field.

>> ken burns , the other big piece of this film, of course, is branch ricky played by harrison ford . an incredibly important figure as well. and i asked harrison ford as part of our press pass conversation about ricky . li listen to what he said and i'll get your reaction.

>> he was led by a very strong religious conviction, a moral conviction, to break the color barrier in baseball . and what he did took enormous savvy and courage because he was resisted by all of the other owners of major league white baseball . many will not remember that at that time there was white baseball and negro league . and branch ricky was compelled by the opportunities he saw in the talent in the negro leagues to want to bring some of those men onto his team. he wanted to win. he wanted to make money. he was a baseball businessman. and he thought he could improve his team and to right a wrong that he felt he'd lived with.

>> and what did he see, ken, in jackie robinson ?

>> it was interesting, those huge debates about why jackie was picked. they knew he had a fiery temper, would he be able to control it? but he knew that he had by going to ucla been with other white players in other sports and could handle it, and that he had this intelligence. and part that have passion could also be restrained. he could also understand the moment. and ricky is an important, important figure. he's doing it not just for business, and a lot of people want to play that up, and not just for this moral thing that ate at him since he was a young teacher when he saw young men try to pull his black skin off. he said, mr. ricky , it's my race. denied a room at an indiana hotel. just lived with ricky and it ate away at him. it was his methodist faith was a lot of that. i think he connected, and rachel can correct me, with rachel and jackie on that level as well. this was a great moral question, too. and in some ways what's so remarkable about harrison ford 's portrayal of ricky , because it feels he's walked out of the photographs, is that he's the original method actor as in methodist. that is to say his faith is part of his everyday conversation.

>> mrs. robinson , what did you think of the movie?

>> i am very pleased by the movie and actually thrilled by it because i waited almost 30 years to see this film made. and one of the concerns i had from the very beginning was that it should be authentic, and it is very authentic as well as powerful and i think that it's also very inspiring. one of the things i hope will come from this is the fact that young people will be inspired, will be educated about the period, will be inspired to think about their own lives in this context and that they will want to be more productive and more linked to the society. and i think beyond their own profession, beyond their own lives, so i'm very thrilled about it and i hope it will have a strong impression particularly on young people .

>> it's significant. it's also very tender. and i want to show a clip and get your reaction to it.

>> promise me you'll write?

>> when have i ever not written?

>> i want you to know i'm there for you even if it's work.

>> you're in my heart.

>> you're getting close now and the closer you get, the worse it will be. don't let them get to you.

>> i won't. god built me to last.

>> you and your late husband as portrayed in this film. yours was a beautiful love story against a very difficult backdrop, wasn't it?

>> yes, it was. we had waited five years to get married. we were engaged for five years. and when mr. ricky called jack and made this offer to him, the excitement we felt was as much about being able to get married as well as his having a job opportunity. but he's it shall i want to emphasize the notion of commitment because i think commitment is something that comes through in this film, that we were committed to each other regardless of what happened in the outer world , and drew on our own love and the depth of our love and our determination to protect it and our family. and, also, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact we did have a family right away. and having a child and being connected and loving him was an important part of the motivation that jack felt for being very careful about how he conducted himself.

>> and, ken burns , your film about jackie robinson is in the works coming out in 2015 . there's a lot more to learn about all of this.

>> always. he's endlessly important and fascinating character. the relationship that you were just talking about between him and rachel is central to it. without rachel , there's no jackie robinson in a way, because she was that rock and that backstop for him. and my only complaint with the movie, which i think is otherwise great, the woman who was incredibly attractive who plays rachel isn't quite as beautiful as rachel is herself. and we -- that's my only knit pick on that. and we're looking forward to filling out this covers a relatively short period in his life and we plan to delve into what brought him to baseball and what he did afterwards because at the very end of his life, in his last public appearance at the 1972 world series where he's being honored at the 25th anniversary year of his arrival in integrating major league baseball and, therefore, integrating the united states , he is saying, i'm very pleased and proud but i'll be more pleased and proud when i see more black faces down on the third-base line and more -- so to the very end he died ten days later, to the very end doing what frederick douglass was doing, agitate, agitate, agitate. remind us we have a goal ahead of us and let's aim for that always. and i loved that about jackie . i love the fact that rachel has not hesitated in any of these years since jackie 's been gone, and it's way, way more years than she was with him, i am so sorry to say, in keeping up that fight, in keeping up that awareness for equality and pushing for the scholarships that the foundation does. and this is a huge part of moving forward in the face of what is inevitable trouble ls. we will still struggle with race today.

>> and, indeed, your film "the central park five" is on pbs.

>> the story just continues.