MLB hosts roundtable on sports and civil rights

Panel part of MLB's Civil Rights Game celebration

MLB hosts roundtable on sports and civil rights

LOS ANGELES -- So much has changed. And so much work is still to be done. The life and legacy of Jackie Robinson took center stage at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel on Wednesday, when Major League Baseball held a roundtable discussion on sports, society and civil rights.

The event, part of MLB's Civil Rights Game celebration, brought an impressive panel of speakers with intimate ties to diversity and America's search for social progress. Robinson's daughter, Sharon, was part of the group, and so was Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and basketball star and Dodgers part-owner Magic Johnson.

Johnson and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta were presented with Beacon Awards in honor of their careers spent in search of change, and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred kicked off the day with a brief introduction. The sport, said Manfred, is forever indebted to Robinson for all he endured.

Beacon Award winners honored

"It's a real pleasure to be here in Los Angeles, and it's especially a pleasure to be here on April 15," Manfred said. "For some people, when they think about April 15, it's Tax Day. In baseball, we know it's Jackie Robinson Day. When Jackie took the field at Ebbets Field in 1947, he faced racism and bigotry, but he began a process that integrated our game and led us to the diversity we enjoy today. Maybe more important, he fueled a movement that literally changed the United States of America."

Indeed, when Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, the country was a very different place. The U.S. Army wouldn't desegregate until the following year, and the Supreme Court's seminal ruling in Brown v. Board of Education was still more than six years away. Robinson's instant impact, so often celebrated, was succinctly summarized by Johnson during Wednesday's discussion.

"A proud black man ... driven by changing the world. Not changing baseball, changing the world," Johnson said of Robinson's legacy. "You have to be so disciplined to resist going back at a fan who is insulting you, and not just you, but your wife and what you stand for. This is a hero for all people. Not just for African-Americans and not just for Latinos. ...This guy is a hero and a man that stands for something. Just like Frank. Frank stands for something, and more than baseball. These two guys are giants."

Huerta, a highly decorated activist best known for being a co-founder of the United Farm Workers, said that Robinson's name shouldn't just be celebrated. Instead, she said, it should fuel the fire for everyone interested in justice. Huerta wants people to not just be impressed with all the hardships Robinson had to face, she wants them to start thinking about how they can affect change in their community.

Huerta on promoting diversity

Now, said Huerta, one of the biggest issues facing America is income disparity, particularly as it relates to minorities and women. And that's a fight that perhaps nobody in America knows better than her.

"When we started with the farm workers movement, that's what it was about, so that farm workers could have decent human rights like toilets, drinking water, relief periods, the right to organize," she said. "These are the basic rights we were fighting for. Farm workers were killed just to get those basic rights. People should not have to suffer and be humilated the way Jackie Robinson was and so many of our leaders have been to get those civil rights.

"I know we're here today to celebrate Jackie Robinson, his accomplishments and everything he did, but it's also a call to all of us. We're going to celebrate, but this is not the end. This is just another beginning. We can do it. Si se puedo. Yes we can."

The last two members of the panel -- Billy Bean, MLB's ambassador of inclusion, and doctoral student Brian Woodward -- brought their own areas of expertise to the table. Bean spoke briefly about his mission to make baseball more tolerant and open to people of all sexual orientations.

"For someone that reaches the level of [Frank] Robinson, Jackie Robinson or Magic Johnson in basketball, the athlete is an athlete first. They're not defined by their sexual orientation," Bean said. "I think that any player that's playing today is the same way. ... I think the first goal is to send a message of acceptance so if there are players coming up in 10 years, they know that baseball has sent a message that everyone is welcome. We just want the best athletes and players playing for our fans."

Civil Rights Game significance

Johnson, best known as the star guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, has made a second career as a philanthropist and a wildly successful businessman. Johnson has made a point of making financial forays into the inner-city, where he employs and caters to people of the minority community.

Now, as a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Johnson feels Robinson's impact plainly. Johnson wants to do justice to Robinson's legacy every day, both as a businessman and a human being.

"What we try to do is make sure we embrace the community," Johnson said. "When you think about the Los Angeles community, it's one of the most diverse cities in the country, so our team and our organization must look like the city we play in. We've done a wonderful job of doing just that. Our fans have responded to that, and that's what it's all about."

Frank Robinson, one of baseball's greatest all-time players, was given an award Wednesday that recognized the 40th anniversary of his becoming baseball's first African-American manager. Robinson has done it all in baseball, first by being a Most Valuable Player in both leagues, and after his managing career, he worked in helping to build the league's Urban Youth Academies.

Frank Robinson honored

With that in mind, he was asked about the game's biggest strides in diversity during his career.

"The biggest strides in diversity have been made on the field, naturally, and I think the next thing is in the front office of organizations," he said. "You don't get to see all the people in the front office because they're behind closed doors, but there's a tremendous improvement in racial equality in the front office. Baseball is continuing to do that, and Major League Baseball's clubs are starting to do that. They're looking at people not by the color of their skin, but by their abilities and skills to perform a chore."

Robinson went out of his way to stress the importance of school, saying that athletic ability can be taken away in an instant, but education is yours forever. And Sharon Robinson, an author and educator, said that she's really proud of the way MLB has embraced the inner-city community over the years.

Robinson, who runs baseball's Breaking Barriers essay contest, spoke of her many tours around the country in which she speaks to the children of America. So much of her work is involved in speaking about her father's life and career, and it always underlines a simple message for her.

"The thing that makes me proudest is that I'm able to talk about my parents and my father with such love and respect," said Sharon Robinson. "For all of you, while it's important to have wonderful careers, just keep your family as a priority and let them know every day how important they are to you. ...The joy of being part of my father's legacy, but to be doing it with kids and schools, has been absolutely amazing."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.