By Jeff Kottkamp
I recently had the opportunity to take my 8 year old son Jackson to see the movie “42”—the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. The movie does an excellent job of demonstrating just how ugly racial prejudice is—while at the same time telling the story of a great athlete who was a pioneer in the fight for racial equality.
Although only briefly mentioned in the movie—Robinson made his first public stand for justice as a Second Lieutenant in the Army. On July 6, 1944 he boarded a bus at Fort Hood and was ordered to the back of the bus by the driver. Robinson refused, was arrested by military police, and an effort was made to court-martial him. Robinson was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing and received an honorable discharge. This event took place 11 years before Rosa Parks’ famous challenge to a similar demand.
As the movie “42” revealed—Jackie Robinson could not have broken the color barrier in professional baseball without someone’s help. That someone was Branch Rickey. Rickey, the General Manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers, took enormous risks when signing Robinson to a contract. Both Rickey and Robinson received death threats and were constantly harassed by those who opposed integration. However, with Jackie Robinson’s success on the field—the resistance to black players in baseball slowly subsided.
Rickey’s efforts reminded me of Joe Eaton who was born and raised in Monticello. He served in the Florida Senate from 1956 to 1959. Eaton was a pioneer in the fight for racial equality in Florida—working side-by-side with his friend Gov. Leroy Collins. Many believed that Joe Eaton would eventually be Governor—but his vocal support of ending racial discrimination led him to take a different career path.
In 1959 Gov. Collins appointed Eaton to the Circuit Court in Miami. Eight years later he was appointed to the Federal Court by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Judge Eaton went on to preside over several early civil rights lawsuits challenging the racial composition of the school system population in South Florida. He crafted orders and judgments that represented a watershed in desegregating the South Florida public schools and in doing so he again endured threats of harm by those opposed to his decisions.
As a young lawyer I had the privilege of serving as a law clerk to Judge Eaton. He was an impressive man who shared my love for baseball. We spent hours talking about law, politics, history—and baseball. Judge Eaton was a bomber pilot during WWII flying missions over German factories. D-Day was his 56th bombing mission. While in law school—he also played professional baseball—making the minor league All-Star team while attending school full-time. And he took a back seat to know one when it came to intellect. Judge Eaton told me as a young boy he saw a black man lynched. He never forgot that injustice—not unlike Branch Rickey who was partially motivated to help Robinson break the color barrier after an earlier incident in his life.
In 2003 I sponsored the Marvin Davies Civil Rights Act—a bill named after Florida Civil Rights pioneer Marvin Davies. The bill was passed and ultimately signed in to law by Governor Jeb Bush. During floor debate on the bill I recounted the brave actions taken by Judge Eaton as a member of the Florida Senate fighting for racial equality over the objections of many in his own party. Like Branch Rickey—Judge Joe Eaton did what he knew in his heart was right—regardless of the risk.
I truly enjoyed watching “42” with my son. It was more than an entertaining sports story—it was an opportunity to teach an important lesson to our children. The lesson of fighting for justice for our fellow man is a lesson that never gets old.
Jeff Kottkamp currently practices law with the Messer Caparello firm in Tallahassee. He was Florida’s 17th Lieutenant Governor and served in the Florida House of Representatives from 2000-2006