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 country’s favorite pastime.
“Baseball has played a unique role in advancing the civil rights struggle in that Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball color 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 rancor 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.”
“I’m wondering why I’m there actually, to tell you the truth,” Freeman said. “It may have something to do with the choice of roles that I’ve been lucky enough to get, I don’t know. It’s an honor I’m not quite sure I deserve. But I’ll take it.”
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.
“That was huge in those days, to think that an African-American would go into an area that was very Southern and in some situations, very segregated,” Solomon said.
Aaron will be honored as part of the weekend’s activities, which include the Beacon Awards Banquet on Saturday, where civil rights icon the Rev. Joseph Lowery will deliver the keynote address. Proceeds from the banquet will go toward the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund.