It is almost impossible for us in 2014 to get our collective head around life in 1947, especially when it came to living as an African-American, especially an African-American male in 1947. Consider, well before Jackie Robinson was born, 1890, and well after he had finished playing baseball, 1968, almost 200 anti-lynching bills were presented before Congress, only three made it through the House, none passed a Senate Vote. (In 2005 the Senate would pass a resolution apologizing for not acting on lynching.)
In 1947, the 1896* Supreme Court case, Plessy v. Ferguson establishing the legitimacy of "separate but equal" was still the law of the United States. Many wondered if the one dissenting justice in that case had gone insane. There were still separate rail cars for whites and blacks, separate water fountains, and truthfully, a separate nation. As much as we like to demonize the South for their overt de jure segregation, the unwritten rules of many cities in the North were just as menacing and just as brutally enforced. In the five years proceeding Robinson's debut, Detroit had the largest race riot of the twentieth century (until the 1967 Detroit riot), New York would experience two riots in the early 1940s and Los Angeles had one of the most infamous racial confrontations, the Zoot Suit Riot of 1943.
It would be a year AFTER Robinson retired that the 101st airborne division, the division made famous by Band of Brothers, would be needed to insure the safety of nine African-American students in Arkansas. In that same year, 1957, Strom Thurmond would filibuster for a record 24 hours and 18 minutes to prevent civil rights legislation from being passed. Even though the 1957 bill passed, it was relatively powerless. It would be almost TWENTY years after Robinson's broke the color line that voting rights for all citizens were finally guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I don't point this out to take away anything from Michael Sam. What he has done is admirable, brave and praiseworthy. Those saying it doesn't deserve the attention it is receiving are, quite simply wrong. However, the world where Michael Sam came out only exists because of Jackie Robinson and many less famous civil rights advocates. The open hostility that Robison faced, the society he challenged was far more pervasive than what Sam will face. Those that oppose Sam or fear him like the now famous anonymous NFL executives who talk in euphemisms and code words, never would have hid in the shadows in 1947.
The comparison between Robison and Sam is an easy one to draw; both are firsts, both actions take courage and both challenge society. The society that Sam is challenging, however, is much more accustomed to change, to being challenged. Many gay advances have occurred. In 1947, very few steps toward equality had been taken. Robinson stepped out alone. With Michael Sam's announcement, it seemed like a good time to remember Jackie Robinson and how remarkable his action truly was.
*thanks to Sue Burton for pointing out the need for clarification.