ATLANTA — Major League Baseball is coming to the home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to pay tribute to those whose life’s work embodies the spirit of the Civil Rights movement.
Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, or black and white Americans fought side by side in the armed forces, Jackie Robinson dared to desegregate the U.S.’s favourite pastime.
For their efforts, baseball will honour Academy-award winner Morgan Freeman, Hall of Famer Ernie Banks and Grammy Award-winning artist Carlos Santana during its annual Civil Rights weekend.
“Baseball has played a unique role in advancing the civil rights struggle in that Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball colour line in 1947 challenged and changed the American climate,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who will participate in this weekend’s events. “It’s hard to imagine how many children were named after Jackie Robinson. In every barber shop, every beauty shop, every church . . . he was a cultural frame of reference.
“He was a celebrity who opened up closed doors, and his role had a tremendous impact on our culture. This game is within that tradition.”
And of course MLB couldn’t come to Atlanta and not pay tribute to Braves’ legend Hank Aaron. There will be a special tribute to the Hall of Fame outfielder. Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s executive vice-president for baseball development, says the weekend is as much about the future as it is the past.
“What baseball did was provide a platform that allowed the entire nation to sit back and watch an African-American actually play with white players — not only to interact with them, but to succeed with them, without rancour or backlash.” Solomon said. “This allows us to rededicate ourselves to inclusion and diversity in the present, recognizing the strides we still need to take on and off the field.”
This weekend’s event, during the Braves-Philadelphia Phillies three-game series, will also feature a roundtable discussion Friday at Ebenezer Baptist Church — where King preached from 1960 until his death — about baseball’s role as an American social institution.
“When I was a kid, the biggest thing in the black community was the Brooklyn Dodgers,” said Freeman, who will receive the Beacon of Hope Award for his work with children. “The Dodgers were way out front in integrating the team. It was a step forward in America’s realization of its own dream. It is sports that has the power to change the world.”
Former Dodger Don Newcombe will present Freeman’s award, which Freeman said he is amazed to receive.
After stops in Memphis, where King was assassinated in 1968, and Cincinnati, a key stop along the underground railroad, the game comes to the cradle of the civil rights movement, where King was born. The Atlanta Braves was also the first MLB franchise to come to the Deep South, arriving from Milwaukee in 1966 with future home run king Hank Aaron.
Aaron will be honoured as part of the weekend’s activities, which include the Beacon Awards Banquet on Saturday, where civil rights icon Rev. Joseph Lowery will give the keynote address.
Proceeds from the banquet will go toward the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund, and net proceeds from the game are donated to local and national charities including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Civil Rights Museum and the Negro Leagues Museum.
The weekend will also focus on young people, with a youth summit planned for Saturday, as well as a concert featuring rapper Ludacris.
The slate of activities is also an effort to bring more blacks to baseball. African American participation in the sport has declined steadily for almost 15 years, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which posts an annual report card on the state of diversity in baseball. At the start of this year’s season, only 8.5 per cent of players were black, down from 10 per cent last year.
Solomon said baseball has several initiatives aimed at addressing the decline of black players on the field, but noted the 40 per cent overall minority rate for players.