MLB inspires kids at MLK Jr. Middle School

MLB inspires kids at MLK Jr. Middle School

MLB inspires kids at MLK Jr. Middle School
ATLANTA -- There's no more fitting place to talk about having and following a dream than at a school named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Major League Baseball did just that on Wednesday afternoon in front of a group of more than 500 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Atlanta.

Within the framework of the upcoming Civil Rights Game, to take place on May 15 at Turner Field, a panel -- which included MLB's manager of Minor League operations, Freddie Seymour; MLB's coordinator of Minor League operations, Ben Baroodi; Atlanta Braves community affairs manager Courtney Gay; and former Atlanta Braves player Terry Harper -- spoke to the students and answered questions for nearly an hour. The session was moderated by Center for Civil and Human Rights CEO Doug Shipman.

The panel tied in baseball's role in the civil rights movement, which was spearheaded by King, who drew inspiration from Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues.

Shipman pointed out how Robinson had practiced what King preached almost two decades prior.

"He practiced non-violence, he practiced forgiveness, he practiced perseverance," said Shipman, who referred to Robinson as "a superhero." "For all of those reasons, Jackie Robinson was a hero of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jackie Robinson, 10 years before Rosa Parks, had been arrested for the same thing. He refused to give up his seat on a bus in Texas. He had already been there."

Another aspect of the discussion was the importance of tolerance and building on the progress that has been made by the civil rights movement and the years since.

CRG 2011 Include

"It's a beautiful thing, because a young mind usually has to be taught racism," said Seymour. "A young person is going to sit next to anyone that is kind to them. They may have a similar interest, like they're on the same kickball team, they could be in the same class, they could have been science partners. They just see the other person for the content of their character and who they are. It's not until the racism stuff is learned. Hopefully, as generations extrapolate out from the middle '60s and early '70s, kids, unless they're taught this type of mind-set about racism and intolerance, it's eventually going to be wiped out.

"Young kids are going to say, 'This guy's my friend. I don't care what color he is. I love this guy and I'll play baseball with him, I'll go to school with him, I'll ride the bus with him. If he's on the back of the bus, I'm going to go sit on the back of the bus with him. If he's in front of the bus, I want to sit next to him in front of the bus.'"

Harper, who played eight years in the Majors (1980-87), the first seven with the Braves, told the kids about rising up from being the first African-American to play baseball in the rec leagues in his hometown of Douglasville, Ga., to making the Majors. Yet he'd discover that despite being part of a Major League organization, he was still unable to find a place to live. The Braves ended up buying a house where 14 black and Latino players lived. Harper didn't get discouraged. He simply used the discrimination as motivation.

Being able to tell his story to these young children who are at a formative age was important to him.

"It's all about the kids and getting them to dream more, to get out of their neighborhoods," he said. "A lot of kids probably don't go too far beyond the doors of this neighborhood. So just getting them to dream, getting them to read, getting them to set some goals and try to reach them, that's what it's all about."

Gay, who has been with the Braves for four years after working with the National Football League and the NBA Development League, stated that it's important to keep your options open and to think outside the box.

"A lot of times, people focus on all the things you can do on the field. If you're blessed with athletic talent, you should definitely pursue that," she said. "But don't forget if you're interested in math, if you want to be an engineer, a broadcaster, anything, all those jobs are available in sports.

"Take advantage of every opportunity you have to learn. There are so many people who have worked really hard so you could have the opportunity to sit in school right now. Starting with the person for whom your school is named."

Baroodi echoed Gay's remarks, adding that preparation is a key to being successful. He used current Braves All-Star right fielder Jason Heyward as an example.

"In one game, he might get one good pitch to hit. He has to make that count," he said. "If he doesn't make it count, the Braves might lose. But if he gets that one chance and he hits a home run, the Braves, they win that game.

"It comes with Jason Heyward preparing for that one pitch to hit. It comes if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer. Because there are a lot of people out there who want to do the same thing. So you have to prepare yourself for when that moment comes you can take full advantage of it."

Seymour believes that the message is most likely to stick with middle schoolers and that once it does, King's dream can become more and more real.

"They have a mantra here, 'You can if you believe you can,'" Seymour said. "Once that phrase starts to permeate their hearts and their souls, it doesn't matter what someone tells them later on.

"There will be a lot of negative speech told to them. But once they have the foundation of, 'I know that I can because I believe in my heart that I can,' then that's when you really have something. So here, you teach the basics and develop a strong foundation and you equip them with the ability to believe in themselves, then they take that for the rest of their lives."

Jon Cooper is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.