What does the Civil Rights Movement owe baseball?

Any discussion of the Civil Rights Movement and the integration of American society cannot begin without noting the contribution of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in Major League Baseball in 1947.

Even though there were a myriad of court cases argued by people like Thurgood Marshall that ultimately laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement, it was Robinson’s entry into the national pastime that put the issue of equal rights for all Americans at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described Robinson as, “a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

It was Robinson’s non-violent reaction to the hatred, boos, racist taunts and threatening letters that predated the sit-ins, freedom rides and bus boycotts that Dr. King led nearly 10 years after baseball’s color line was broken. The visceral reaction to Robinson’s entry into baseball made the nation come face-to-face with racial injustice in what is supposed to be a country where all men are created equal.

“Jackie did it on a platform that was viewed by millions of people, he had to do it with a certain decorum, he had do it with a certain toughness, he had to endure a lot of hatred and perform at a high level,” said Jimmie Lee Solomon, Executive Vice President, Baseball Development, for Major League Baseball. “Dr. King did the same thing. What Dr. King went through in his 39 years is mind-boggling.”
This weekend’s fifth annual Delta Civil Rights Game in Atlanta between the Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies, along with other events, is a celebration of the role that Major League Baseball played in what would be one of the nation’s greatest mass movements. It is a tribute to the people who fought for the cause of equal rights for all Americans.

The game is played every year in Atlanta primarily because the city is the home of the movement’s leaders including Dr. King. The net proceeds of the game will go to building the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project.

Both the Braves and the Phillies don the uniforms of the Atlanta Black Crackers and the Philadelphia Stars) of the Negro Leagues. There is also a special presentation to former Negro League player James “Red” Moore.

In addition to the game, there are other events that highlight the history of baseball and Civil Rights, like a roundtable discussion of the role baseball played in the Civil Rights Movement held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s church during the Civil Rights Movement.

Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree is the moderator of this panel. Some of the speakers include singer Gloria Gaynor, activist Dolores Huerta, Artie Moreno, principle owner of the Los Angeles Angels and Marc Morial, executive director of the National Urban League. Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton will also present.

One of the major festivities of the weekend is the MLB Beacon Awards featuring a special tribute to Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. During his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, Aaron and his family experienced some of the same racist taunts through hate mail that Robinson dealt with when he broke baseball’s color line.

”(Whites) did not embrace him and let the racial animus take over and the death threats, his wife and family were jeered. It was so bad that his family couldn’t take it,” Solomon said. “The MLB Beacon Awards Banquet is the most fitting environment to honor the legendary Hank Aaron, whose heroic accomplishments, contributions and support for the game of baseball have been and continue to be invaluable.”

MLB Beacon Award recipients include Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, Grammy-Award winning recording artist Carlos Santana, and legendary Chicago Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is the keynote speaker at the event.

Other events include a Civil Rights Game Youth Summit in which young people participate in a baseball and softball clinic and interact with major league players. There isalso a post game concert featuring rapper Ludacris.