Jackie Robinson Breaks Color Barrier in Atlanta

Photo by Bob Sandberg LOOK Magazine

Photo by Bob Sandberg
LOOK Magazine

Segregation and Jim Crow laws were all too familiar to the people of Atlanta, both black and white, in 1949. Racial equality would not become a reality in the city for decades to come. Yet for three days in April 1949, Atlantans put the racial tenor of the time aside for a few hours each day in old Ponce de Leon Park to watch Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and the rest of the Brooklyn Dodgers play three exhibition games against the Atlanta Crackers.  However, these games almost did not take place.

In the weeks leading up to the games the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) tried to stop the contests. KKK Grand Dragon Dr. Samuel Green stated that it was against Georgia’s segregation law for “negroes” to play baseball games open to the public. “The Ku Klux Klan is a law-abiding organization. There is no law against the game. But we have an unwritten law in the South—Jim Crow law. The Atlanta Baseball Club is breaking down traditions of the South and the club will pay for it.”

Brooklyn Dodgers’ President Branch Rickey responded, “I regret very much that anybody anywhere should object to the Dodgers playing a game with their regular team, and it certainly would not be our intention to break the law. That we would never do. If we are not allowed to use the players we want or we are told we are breaking the law, why the Dodgers simply won’t play there.”

The Atlanta city attorney and the Georgia attorney general issued statements that no law existed that would prevent Robinson and Campanella (also black) from playing baseball against the Crackers. The games were officially on for April 8-10.  Before the game, Robinson declared, “This is the most thrilling experience of my life. It’s the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. It’s great to feel that I am playing a part in breaking down the barriers against the people of my race.”

All three games were standing room only and played without incident. The stands at Ponce de Leon Park were segregated into “White” and “Colored” sections for seating; attendance at the games was split almost evenly between blacks and whites. While Robinson encountered some boos, the overwhelming sound during the games was cheers for the star—every Robinson hit led to a standing ovation. The fact that the Dodgers won two of the three contests was overshadowed by the demonstration of racial unity during the three games. These games marked the first time in Atlanta history that blacks and whites competed against each other in a professional sporting event and gave hope that one day men and women of both races could live peacefully together as equals.