For many Americans over the last decade, Jackie Robinson literally has been the face of character, memorialized on billboards and posters on highways and in airports across the land.
The nonprofit Foundation For A Better Life selected Robinson for its national ad campaign not just because his 1947 debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers ended 80 years of racial segregation in professional baseball, but primarily for the way that he did it.
Faced with daily displays of vile racial hatred from both fans and fellow players, plus a constant stream of anonymous threats aimed both at him and his family, “Robinson possessed the courage to defy retaliation and was the consummate athletic professional,” reads his online citation. Said Robinson, “I’m not concerned with you liking or disliking me—all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
This month, I had the great good fortune to see the new film, “42,” in the company of someone who actually played ball with Jackie Robinson in the service during World War II. My fellow moviegoer was Mr. Edwin Fizer, 87, (pictured left, with his Congressional Gold Medal, awarded to all the Montford Point Marines in 2011) of Park Forest IL, a friend whom I had first met three years ago when we both served as Cook County election judges together. A New Orleans native, Fizer in 1942 had joined the United States Marine Corps at the age of 16, accompanied by a permission slip from his mother. He and thousands of other African-American recruits were then segregated and sent to Montford Point at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. There, they came to be known as the Montford Point Marines, the first-ever African-American unit of the USMC.
The surviving members of the Montford Point Marines received the Congressional Gold Medal in the fall of 2011.
After shipping out for the Pacific, Fizer would go on to be part of Allied campaigns in the Marianas and Marshall Islands, among other tropical hot spots. Then, as now, despite all the difficult tasks that he has had to perform, the troubling sights he has seen, and the racism that he has personally experienced, he remains an incredibly positive presence—even after losing a foot to diabetes last fall and being confined to a wheelchair.
Companion and Champion
For the last 20 years or more, he has been an incredibly active community volunteer, giving countless inspirational talks to schoolchildren and acting as a “senior companion” to the frail elderly in Suburban Cook County. Prior to his own recent disability, he had even been an elementary school crossing guard for years in Park Forest. Today, Fizer is among those cited by the White House website as one of its “Champions of Change,” people who are “doing extraordinary work to create a more safe, equal and prosperous future for their communities and the country.”
At the movies this month, I asked along two other friends, both Navy veterans, and one of whom has taught U.S. History at Homewood-Flossmoor High School for the last 19 years. Afterward, we all broke bread together and reflected on the film, race relations and the notion of character. For his part, Fizer loved “42” and admitted afterward that he had gotten choked up several times during the screening.
In particular, one unforgettable scene shows a white father and young son in the stands during Robinson’s debut in Cincinnati. At first, the two are talking to each other innocently, but as soon as #42 takes the field for the Dodgers, the father unleashes a torrent of racial invectives that initially startles his child. After hesitating for moment, the boy then chimes in, following his father’s lead, shouting the N-word and yelling, “You don’t belong here!”
However, both the boy and the crowd fall silent when local hero, Kentucky’s own Pee Wee Reese, walks across the infield and puts his arm around his teammate’s shoulders, signaling to everyone that he accepts Robinson. The incident, which did actually happen, struck a chord with Fizer. “Pee Wee Reese was my favorite player, too,” he says. “And that scene with the father and son is so true. That’s where children learn their prejudices, you know—in their families, right at the dining room table.”
Fizer, of course, saw plenty of racism, himself, even while wearing his Marines uniform. “I remember walking down the street in one Southern city and hearing a child ask, ‘Is that a nigger, mommy?’” he recalls. “Another time, we were ordered off a troop train to make room for Nazi POWs—the enemy!—who needed a transport. I was just amazed by that.” It was a chilling reminder that, for many, even the white prisoners ranked above their African-American captors.
But there were also other moments that offered hope. Eighteen months ago, when the surviving Montford Point Marines were all awarded Congressional Gold Medals in Washington, D.C., Fizer recounted this story for USA Today:
He once was sitting in a bus station in Jacksonville, N.C., returning to base after leave, when a Marine asked why Fizer hadn’t boarded a bus yet. Fizer told him they allowed only one black for every 10 whites who boarded a bus. The Marine pulled out his .45-caliber pistol and pointed it at the head of the station clerk. “I want him on the bus immediately,” the Marine said, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The frightened clerk complied, Fizer said.
After the war, Fizer concedes that he was disillusioned by the racism that he encountered when he returned home to start a family and earn a living. In need of work, he eventually moved to Chicago in the 1950s and became a police officer, and then later a desk sergeant. There, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he found himself increasingly drawn to the passionate and peaceful righteousness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In short order, Fizer stunned his superiors at the Chicago Police Dept. by voluntarily accepting a pay cut in order to join Dr. King’s security detail. In that capacity, he managed to befriend the civil rights leader, often chatting with him offstage as Dr. King waited to be introduced.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some special people in my life—Jackie, Martin, Satchel Paige, Langston Hughes, John Hope Franklin and others,” he notes. “And with all of them, their character shines through with the beam of a thousand candles.”
Of course, Ed Fizer’s own character is not lacking for candle-power. And after so many decades of challenge, frustration, progress, setback and recovery, his pilot light is still burning as brightly as his smile. As he told CNN at the Gold Medal ceremony, “I often talk to young white (students) who say, ‘If I were in your shoes, I would be very angry.’ Well, I tell them, it takes strength.”
Strength of character, that is.
As a decorated African-American veteran, Fizer says that he is most proud of our nation’s history of continually trying to improve itself. “We’re preserving the legacy of America having to make right some of its wrongs,” he explains. And the great majority of fellow citizens—black, white and everything else—that he has met in his life actually want to do the right thing, he adds. “The most profound thing I think I’ve ever heard is when (older whites) say, ‘Remember, that (segregation) was the law at the time. But now that the law has changed, we have to abide by it.’”
Many of us may find it sad to think that some people actually need laws to make them do the right thing. But the ever-cheerful Ed Fizer is more encouraged by the overwhelming evidence that all of us, both young and old, still have the capacity to change for the better.