Michelle Obama thanks Jackie Robinson's widow in emotional tribute

April 2, 2013 at 4:28 PM ET

Jacquelyn Martin / AP /
First Lady Michelle Obama introduces a panel of the cast and crew of the movie "42", next to Rachel Robinson, widow of baseball great Jackie Robinson, before a workshop for high school and college students on Tuesday at the White House.

First lady Michelle Obama paid an emotional tribute to Jackie Robinson's 90-year-old widow Rachel on Tuesday, who spoke as part of a panel discussion at the White House on the movie "42," which profiles the life of her iconic baseball player husband.

"I want to pay special thanks to a woman that I am totally in awe of. And I'm not going to get emotional. I'm going to say that now. Because I tend to get emotional," Mrs. Obama insisted, though she did seem close to crying later in her speech.

"This is what a beautiful woman looks like," she said. "She is a proud 90 years old. And I'm telling you that because she's proud of it."

Mrs. Obama said that she and the president were very moved after watching "42" over the weekend. "You're left asking yourself, how on Earth did they do it? How did they endure the bigotry?" she said. "While so many in this country still face clear challenges — they still exist today — I was struck by how far removed that way of life seems today."

She also expressed how honored she was to have the chance to host Mrs. Robinson on the panel. "For us to be able to sit in the same room as Rachel Robinson - do you all understand? We are here WITH Rachel Robinson," the first lady marveled, looking on the verge of tears. "The woman who lived through that life. Whose memories and perspectives will forever be shaped by those experiences. Her presence today makes us realize just how connected we are to that part of history. It is very real and very tangible."

Mrs. Obama was also very excited that Harrison Ford, another "42" star, was on the panel. "I want to thank Harrison Ford. I've wanted to say that for a while," she said. "You trip because I'm here? I'm tripping out because he's here. Look at the stage. Mr. Harrison Ford."

Ford spoke about how honored he was to play Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who picked Robinson to break baseball's color barrier.

"Behind everything there was the knowledge of what Jackie was able to do - What Jackie and Rachel were able to do, for us all. And to be part of the telling of that story was for me a great honor."

Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, was asked what she thought about current race relations in the United States. "We have made great social progress in America but we still have a lot of work to do," she said. "We're not there yet. It's not a perfect world."

She also described her feelings when Jackie told her he would be playing for the Dodgers, admitting she was most elated about him getting a job.

"I was in Los Angeles and he called me from New York to tell me he had just met Mr. Rickey. Out of the blue, not expected and tremendous," she recalled. "And he said I was not to tell anyone because Mr. Rickey wanted to make an announcement and we wanted to keep it a secret. I was thrilled for several reasons because it sounded like a real opportunity, but also because it meant we could get married. And I had been waiting a long time."

Actor Chadwick Boseman, and "42" writer-director Brian Helgeland, were also on the panel. "42" hits theaters on April 12.