Ken Burns Talks Sports Legend Jackie Robinson

His new documentary debuts April 11 on PBS.

ken burns

Ken Burns’s Jackie Robinson documentary debuts this month. / Photograph courtesy of PBS

In 1994, filmmaker Ken Burns debuted his nine-part documentary Baseball, which drew more than 45 million viewers, making it the most-watched program in PBS history. Two decades later, the New Hampshire resident is back on the mound with Jackie Robinson, a new documentary dedicated to the sports pioneer and civil rights icon who broke baseball’s color barrier. Airing on PBS April 11 and 12, the film tackles Robinson’s life and legacy both on and off the field. We talked to Burns about Robinson’s complicated history with the Red Sox—who infamously rejected him—and the lasting impact of his political activism.

Considering that the Red Sox were the last team to integrate, did they seriously consider Jackie Robinson during his tryout in 1945?

Not at all. The Red Sox, under pressure from a left-leaning congressman in town, were going to do this tryout [for black ballplayers]. They had no intention of signing him. Jackie impressed people there, even though the Red Sox couldn’t do anything.

Who carries his mantle today?

Unhesitatingly, I’d say LeBron James. He’s the one who had the courage, as did many players in the NBA, to take up the Black Lives Matter [cause], to wear hoodies, to devote themselves in solidarity against the intolerable fact that in this country, which invented the modern notion of “all men created equal,” we still live in a society so completely unequal with regard to opportunity for African Americans.

What lessons should we take away from Robinson’s life?

We still live in a society where we do not judge people on the content of their character, as Dr. King said, but on the color of their skin. Jackie fought all his life to change that, as did Dr. King in both of their two short lives, and as I have in my own modest way in films, in dealing about race. We can’t be fully Americans until we take care of this problem. Whether it’s about the all-white Oscar nominations or Black Lives Matter, if [Robinson] were still alive, he would be fighting for all of these things.