Jackie Robinson, Trayvon Martin and the Sad History of Sanford, Florida

Sanford, Florida is a city that will now be known for all times as the place where Trayvon Martin was killed for the crime of Living While Black. It's in addition the place whose institutions – the police department, the local press, and even the city morgue - treated Trayvon and his body in ways that should disturb anyone with a shred of conscience.

The city of Sanford also has a past that speaks to the racism many believe to be at the heart of why Trayvon was killed and why the man who pulled the trigger was never arrested. I'm not arguing that Sanford, Florida is somehow more or less twisted than anywhere else. Last month, unarmed, 18-year-old Ramarley Graham was killed in his bathroom by police in New York City. Last week Dane Scott Jr. in Del City, Oklahoma was killed by police after a “scuffle.” The state Medical Examiner's office, however, declared Scott's death a homicide. The murder of Trayvon Martin is only a “local issue” if we understand “local” to mean local communities across the country.

But Sanford, Florida does have its own history and it includes a collective moment of intolerance and bigotry that almost derailed the man Martin Luther King called “a freedom rider before freedom rides,” Jackie Robinson.

Before Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947 as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he spent a season desegregating the minor leagues, playing for the Dodgers AAA team, the Montreal Royals. The Royals held Spring Training in Sanford.

Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, after so many years, thought he knew Florida. He believed that Robinson’s presence could go over if efforts were taken to ruffle as few feathers as possible. Robinson, on Rickey’s instructions, didn't try to stay at any Sanford hotels. He and his wife didn’t eat out at any restaurants not deemed “Negro restaurants." He didn't even dress in the same locker room as his teammates.

Rickey thought that would be enough. He thought he knew Florida. But he didn't know Sanford.

As Jean West, a school teacher in Florida, wrote, "Branch Rickey had miscalculated the degree to which Jim Crow was entrenched in Sanford. As an example, an inanimate object, a second-hand piano, purchased in 1924 from the courthouse for use in a segregated school in nearby Oviedo, was filed as a 'Negro Piano' in the school board's record; living human beings challenging segregation certainly would not be tolerated."

It wasn't. The mayor of Sanford was confronted by what the author describes as a "large group of white residents" who  "demanded that Robinson... be run out of town."

The Mayor caved. On March 5th, the Royals were informed that they would not be permitted to take the field as an integrated group. Rickey was concerned for Robinson’s life and sent him to stay in Daytona Beach.  His daughter, Sharon Robinson, remembered, "The Robinsons were run out of Sanford, Florida with threats of violence."

This was a low moment for Jackie. The man whose number 42 is retired throughout Major League Baseball almost quit and rejoined the Negro Leagues.

The team then took an extraordinary step. As the late tennis star Arthur Ashe wrote in A Hard Road to Glory, Rickey, ''moved the entire Dodger pre-season camp from Sanford, Florida, to Daytona Beach due to the oppressive conditions of Sanford.'' That sounds heroic and it speaks well for Rickey's fierce desire to forge ahead with “the Great Experiment”, racists be damned. But the mob in Sanford had made, at least for the moment, a successful stand. In cites and small towns across the south, Jackie Robinson’s mere presence provoked challenges to power and provoked real, meaningful change. In Sanford, change did not come that easily.

What does this tell us? Maybe nothing, maybe everything. If nothing else, the line between Jackie Robinson and Trayvon Martin points to how institutional and systemic racism actually is. We might have short memories, but institutions only change when they are confronted and challenged. In Sanford, racist institutions took root.  Now we bear the horrifying fruit.

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Sanford Fla

Dave's best essay ever.

Another institution

One institution, racist or not, is the NRA, which sponsored the "Standing Your Ground" bill, with the blessing of then Gov. Jeb Bush no less. It furnished the doctrine that emboldened George Zimmerman to pursue and shoot Trayvon Martin in cold blood, unprovoked. We don't have official testimony to determine that Zimmerman acted on racist motives, although the 911 call doesn't argue much to the contrary. Florida has seen a spike in justifiable homicide claims in less than 2 years since the law passed, which pulls into question whether Martin's story is unique, or perhaps an unappetizing example. Due to the sensational elements in this one, though, it has instigated a Justice Department probe, which just might force a reckoning on the law, which other states have since adopted.

Historical context such as the Dodgers' spring training are part of the story, and are important to keep in mind when we discuss integration, particularly team spectator sports. The fact that Rickey advised Jackie Robinson on the delicate protocols of Sanford indicates that he had at least some idea of what to expect, even if he didn't know all about the town.

Locales are fluid, so it always feels intellectually lazy to indict a town--or worse, an entire region--based on events of more than a generation ago, not the least of which because it gives us outsiders a sense of unearned enlightenment. Sanford may not be worse or uglier than others, but when things go this wrong, somebody has a price to pay. Unfortunately, Sanford is living down to the worst kind of reputation. The lesson to learn here is, we have at least one unarmed juvenile killed by an armed civilian with no apparent fear of legal reprisals. Maybe it hasn't happened in just any US city, but that doesn't mean it can't.


"The state Medical Examiner's office, however, declared Scott's death a homicide." That is not an either-or concept. A homicide is simply an instance where one person is killed by another, as opposed to dying on his or her own, including justifiable or accidental deaths.

more to the story?

has to the more to the story, a lot more. dont see some guy just shooting a kid, all of the details likely havent come out yet...

Jackie Robinson, Trayvon Martin....

Nice, job, Dave.

My family moved to Sanford in 1976 and I went to high school there. My parents lived there until their deaths, so I went back often. Thus I have been following the news out there intently.

A really interesting perspective on Jackie Robinson's brief time in Sanford comes from Sanford's most-famous resident Red Barber, the Dodgers announcer.

Barber grew up in Sanford during an era when it was commonplace for African-American men to be tarred and feathered and paraded through downtown.

Barber writes (in "1947: When All Hell Broke Loose In Baseball") of how he planned to walk away from his contract with the Dodgers when he learned of Robinson's signing. Fortunately, he was talked out of this decision by his wife after a few martinis.

Sanford, for a small town, has had several several notable residents. It's interesting that there has been no commentary (that I've seen) on the Trayvon Martin tragedy by Tim Raines, Jeff Blake, David Eckstein, or Larry the Cable Guy for that matter.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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