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April 15, 2021

Lesson Plan: Jackie Robinson’s complicated — and important — legacy

Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, posed and ready to swing in 1954. Photo by Bob Sandberg. Library of Congress.


History records Jackie Robinson as a superb athlete and the first African American to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. We oftentimes see heroes like Robinson as one-dimensional figures—great athlete, civil rights activist, or civic leader. Exploring the historical agency of decisions and the historical context in which Robinson made them, however, provides us with a greater understanding of who he was.

For a google doc version of this lesson, click here.


In this lesson, you will examine the key events in Jackie Robinson’s life that tell a deeper story beyond being a “hero.” These include his U.S. Army court martial, his entry into the Major Leagues and his post-baseball, civil rights activities. Working in small groups, you will discuss these events and then write a short essay describing whether you agree or disagree with the choices Robinson made and why.

This lesson can be used in either remote or traditional learning environments.

Essential question: What are the dangers of freezing our heroes in the moment that made them famous?

Estimated time:

One 50-minute period



Warm-up activity:

In class discussion, talk about what qualities or personality traits make a hero. Why are we drawn to heroes and place them in such high regard? What is it we need from them? Do you think our heroes are always unique or can they be like the rest of us? How do you feel when a person you admired shows a side of them that didn’t fit your definition of who you thought they were?

Main activity:

In this activity, students will view several segments from the Ken Burns’ film Jackie Robinson and excerpts from a PBS NewsHour Extra webinar, Exploring Jackie Robinson’s Legacy.

First, view this clip from a recent NewsHour Extra webinar on Jackie Robinson. In it, Dr. Michael G. Long discusses how only seeing historical figures in heroic terms causes us to miss the fullness and richness of their lives.

Discussion questions:

  • Long spoke about “freezing” our understanding of Jackie Robinson in his first year in baseball when he turned the other cheek to racial abuse. What are your thoughts on Dr. Long’s statement that we do this because it makes Robinson feel safe and non-threatening to white Americans? What about Black Americans?
  • How does Dr. Long’s story of Jackie Robinson being taunted by the Philadelphia Phillies’ bench players help illustrate there are more sides to Jackie Robinson than just being a hero?
  • What does Dr. Long feel we miss about other aspects of Robinson’s life after baseball when we only see him as a hero?

Now let’s look at some clips from Ken Burns film Jackie Robinson that show multiple sides of his personality and character.

Watch the following clips and discuss the questions below.

  • Jackie Robinson stands up against racism in the U.S. Army by forcefully standing his ground and disobeying an order from a white man.
  • From the film Jackie Robinson: In 1947, Jackie Robinson is hired to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and breaks Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Robinson understands the importance of the moment and decides not to retaliate against racist abuse.

  • Racial Integration in Major League Baseball
    • 1949, Branch Rickey says to Robinson, take the gloves off and play your way. Robinson decides to play fair, but stand up for himself..
  • Image and Public Perception
    • Jackie Robinson carefully weighs the merits of the militant black power movement with that of non-violent protest of Martin Luther King and the NAACP and decides his own path for racial equality.

Discussion questions:

  1. Describe the decisions Jackie Robinson made in the bus ride incident and during the court marital. Why do you think he took the actions he did?
  2. Discuss the different expectations of Branch Rickey, white fans, African American fans and Jackie Robinson himself had as he entered major league baseball in 1947. How do you think these expectations played into Robinson’s decision to follow Rickey’s request and not fight back?
  3. Discuss Robinson’s decision in 1949 to play baseball without restraint. Why do you think he made this decision? Do you think it was a wise decision? Why or why not?
  4. The image of “black masculinity” changed in the 1960s to be more aggressive and militant. What events were going on in society during this time that led to this transformation?
  5. Based on these clips and what you know of the 1960s, why do you think Jackie Robinson criticized this “militancy” of fellow Black Americans in the 60s? How does this criticism compare with his early actions in the army and in baseball?

Culminating question:

View this clip from a recent NewsHour Extra webinar on Jackie Robinson. In it, Dr. Yohuru Williams discusses the idea of historical agency—how the decisions of historical figures made from a range of choices, help us choices we make  today.

Consider what Dr. Williams said about Jackie Robinson and the decisions he made in the four incidents presented in the video clips. Write a short essay describing whether you agree or disagree with the choices Robinson made and why.


Greg Timmons is a freelance writer, and educational consultant of web-based and broadcast media materials. After a 30-year career as a social studies teacher in the public schools, he has written and consulted for several national news and educational organizations including PBS NewsHour Extra, FRONTLINE, History Channel, the Biography Channel, Colonial Williamsburg, and several Ken Burns series. He resides in Montana and Washington state.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:

      Common Core

      ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.8 Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

      NCSS C3 Framework

      Civ.5.9-12. Evaluate cit­izens’ and institutions’ effec­tiveness in addressing social and political problems at the local, state, tribal, national, and/or international level. Civ.14.9-12. Analyze historical, contemporary, and emerging means of chang­ing societies, promoting the common good, and protect­ing rights. His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and devel­opments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts. His.3.9-12. Use ques­tions generated about indi­viduals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context. His.4.9-12. Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras. His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape peo­ple’s perspectives.

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