In celebration of the 2011 Civil Rights Game, which will be played at Turner Field on May 15, Major League Baseball set up a panel discussion at Booker T. Washington in the morning and Tri-Cities in the afternoon that combined a discussion of baseball's role in the Civil Rights Movement with career opportunities in and away from the game.
Participants included former Major Leaguers Brian Jordan, Marquis Grissom and Terry Harper; Doug Shipman, CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights Partnership; Sylvia Lind, MLB's director of baseball operations; Fred Seymour, manager of Minor League operations; and Aman Milner, partner services coordinator for the Braves. Atlanta Hawks P.A. announcer Ryan Cameron kept the event moving and interacted in his unique style at both schools.
"For me, it's huge. It's the education of life," said Grissom, who played 17 years in the Major Leagues, including the 1995 World Series championship season and 1996 with the Braves, and who runs the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association. "Being able to teach my kids about not only what I've endured and what I've seen, what I've heard, what I've read, what my mom and dad experienced growing up, what we do from here is important."
"I hope that I can motivate and inspire these young kids to learn their history and learn about the leaders before them and inspire them as it did me," said Jordan, the first African American to play both professional baseball and football, and who is an analyst for Braves Live! on Fox SportsSouth and SportsSouth. "I'm one of those athletes that accepts the challenge of being a role model. I want to live that life, that kids look at me and say, 'Wow. I want to do what he did.' Like Jackie Robinson did. He inspired me to play as many sports as possible and to dream. Dream big. Set your goals and work hard."
Both sessions hammered home the message of not being afraid to dream while weaving in lessons about the internal strength and character of Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King and other African Americans who were influential in the Civil Rights Movement.
Courage of conviction and restraint in the face of adversity and hatred were the overriding themes throughout. Harper recalled several such instances, including the shock of riding the bus to the ballpark and being met by several opposing fans dressed in KKK robes. Grissom recalled being hit with batteries and coins in Philadelphia and the restraint he showed another time when a fan got personal about a family member, and Jordan told of a chilling incident with a bigoted, overzealous police officer while driving home from a charity event with a teammate early in his St. Louis career.
"Imagine if I had reacted, how bad it could have been," Jordan told the kids at Tri-Cities. "But because of my history, learning about Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson, all the racism that they had to endure, it made me strong. That's why it's so important for you guys to learn about your history, and hopefully, it inspires you and motivates you to do the right thing.
"There's always going to be somebody who's jealous of you, that's going to challenge you because you might be on the right path," he added. "They want to bring you down, but you can't let it happen, because you work hard to reach your dreams. Don't let anybody destroy them for you."
"Don't let anything disturb or get you off track what you're trying to do," added Grissom. "It was one of the first lessons I learned in baseball. No matter what happens, no matter what somebody does or somebody says, you have to stay on the path of success."
The presentation offered hope as much as it did a warning about the evils in the world.
Lind, who grew up obsessed with baseball -- as a child, she wanted to be the Mets' general manager -- addressed the importance of bringing baseball back to the inner cities, mentioning MLB's academy in Compton, Calif., and talked about this year's Civil Rights Game honorees -- Cubs Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks; guitarist Carlos Santana, who defied critics by going with his instincts in introducing Spanish guitar into rock; and actor Morgan Freeman, who successfully fought the antiquated idea of segregated proms at a Mississippi High School.
Seymour and Milner each talked about the importance of knowing and following your dream, preparing for the opportunity to come and then, once it arrives, making sure you're ready to accept it.
Sgt. First Class Dwayne Hutchinson and Sgt. First Class Romond Waldron, who represented the U.S. Army, put the idea of keeping options open into play.
Shipman summed up the importance of baseball in the fight for equality and its long-reaching effect on the world in general.
He mentioned how President (then-candidate) Barack Obama credited King for opening the door for his run for the nation's highest office. Shipman then pointed out that King's famous "I have a dream" speech actually was delivered 18 years to the day after then-Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey called Robinson into his office to make him the first African-American Major Leaguer.
Shipman continued with a crucial turning point in Robinson's acceptance, when teammate Pee Wee Reese put his arm around him at second base. The game would never be the same; 25 percent of baseball players were born outside the U.S.
"Baseball has always been a little bit ahead of the curve. Baseball created the world before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of it," Shipman said. "Civil rights in baseball basically started with two guys, then a third, the a few dozen, then hundreds, then thousands and then millions. Sports can give us a little bit of hope that the real world can change, and that was never more true than when Jackie Robinson took the field for the first time."
"It's just amazing what MLB is doing with keeping civil rights active, keeping it alive," said Grissom. "Not letting people forget and reminding our young generation about what Dr. Martin Luther King endured and what some of he players endured. Not just baseball, but football, basketball, track and field. What they did to make playing sports and living in this era, what it means to our new generation."