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'42,' '54 and since 

The feel-good movie of the season, unless you are of a certain turn of mind, is "42," the story of Jackie Robinson, whose number is the only one retired by major-league baseball.

You get to see what repugnant racists we once were but, mercifully, are no more. Not quite, anyway.

Jackie Robinson's is one of the great American narratives: a poised black man, chosen for the mission of breaking the color barrier in professional sports owing not only to his marvelous athletic skills but to the temperament to absorb unceasing abuse without fighting back and risking the cause. He cleared the path for black youngsters to perform and excel in the citadel of American culture, sports, as well as the arts, entertainment and elsewhere.

The other half of the feel-good story of "42" is all of us — how we supposedly have overcome our fears and loathing — although the theme is muted in the movie, merely understood. All that horrible stuff — the threats, the humiliation, his own Brooklyn teammates refusing to take the field with him, the ugly slurs screamed from the field and the stands, the fast balls aimed at his head, the denial of public accommodations that his teammates enjoyed — was so long ago, 66 years.

Everyone now winces when Ben Chapman, who managed the Phillies in the City of Brotherly Love, stands in front of his dugout taunting the black man at the plate — "Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger ..." — and signals the pitcher to go for the brain.

We overcame all that, didn't we?

It must be lost on no one that most of the ugliness in "42" occurs in northern cities, Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Boston, not Memphis, New Orleans, Dallas or Atlanta, but only because they didn't have major-league ball.

It also must be said that when Jackie Robinson redeemed major-league baseball, as his patron, Branch Rickey, claimed, it carried no weight at all in the South.

Seven years later, we faced the problem in South Arkansas. Hot Springs passed for a liberal precinct in 1954. The people who ran the Hot Springs Bathers in the Cotton States League, including a Republican lawyer and politician named Hank Britt, hired two black pitchers, Jim "Schoolboy" Tugerson and his brother Leander. The other Arkansas and Mississippi cities in the league announced they wouldn't play the Bathers if they fielded a Negro. The attorney general, J. P. Coleman, declared it illegal in Mississippi for a black man to play baseball on the same field as whites.

My beloved Oilers at El Dorado and the other teams voted to expel the Bathers until their management agreed not to play a Tugerson. When Schoolboy went to the mound anyway against the Jackson Senators, before he could deliver a pitch the umpire forfeited the game to Jackson.

The Tugersons picked up and went to Knoxville, Tenn., where the unhittable Schoolboy won 33 games that season. Before the season was out, Britt managed to put a black Langston High School lad, Uvoyd Reynolds, and another player from the Negro American League on the field for a few games at Hot Springs, and attendance jumped. But other cities — El Dorado, Helena, Pine Bluff — were not ready to see black athletes. I went to town one August night that year to see the Oilers pound the Greenville Buckshots. Jim Johnson from nearby Crossett, who was running for attorney general to fight integration, stood at the plate with his wife and sang "On Mockingbird Hill" at the seventh-inning stretch. The Cotton States League, facing integration and other issues, folded the next season, and for some of us summers were never the same.

Little Rock integrated baseball in 1963, when its parent club, the Phillies, signed Dick Allen, a future major-league slugger, and sent him to the Travelers. Fearing the torment that would ensue, he begged not to be sent to Little Rock and always hated the Phillies for it. My paper, the Gazette, and the Democrat instructed their writers not to identify this Dick Allen as the first black player, but the word got out. The White Citizens Council picketed the park the first night with signs that said "Nigger go home" and "Don't Negro-ize baseball." As the national anthem played at the outset, Allen stood frozen in right field reciting the 23rd Psalm to himself. When he left the ballpark that night he found a note on his windshield: "Don't come back again nigger." An outcast on the team and in town, he could not stay in public accommodations or eat out, so he lived with a black family.

We aren't so callous anymore, not openly anyway — not in Philadelphia, Penn., or even in Philadelphia, Miss. In fact, we have elected a black man president and re-elected him in what was supposed to be the "post-racial society."

But, make no mistake. Race still makes a difference everywhere, even in the sporting arenas, and it governs national life in subtle ways and big. A huge national consensus about guns, so relatively easy to translate into law when a Southern white boy was president, flounders when the black man makes it his cause.

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