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Civil Rights Game pays homage

Civil Rights Game pays homage

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Paying homage again to one of the most significant American movements, Major League Baseball will stage the second annual Civil Rights Game on Saturday evening in the cradle of its toughest battleground.

This year, the opponents are the White Sox and the Mets and the exhibition game at AutoZone Park will culminate several days of discussions about the state of race relations in the United States, highlighted by Friday night's Beacon Awards dinner.

"I look forward to the dialogue and certain insights that people have," said White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, one of the highest ranking African-American officials in Major League Baseball. "I'm going to view the whole experience as an educational experience. At this time, I don't know which direction the conversation will lend itself, so I don't know how much I can contribute. I certainly am interested in revisiting the past in this fashion."

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The Civil Rights Game, presented by AutoZone and slated to begin at 5 p.m. ET, has become a formidable preface to the opening of the regular season, which will occur in the U.S. with the first game at the new ballpark in Washington, D.C., on Sunday night, when the Braves play the Nationals.

ESPN and MLB.TV will broadcast the Civil Rights Game live, with pregame shows beginning at 4 ET.

AutoZone Park, the seven-year-old home of the Memphis Redbirds -- the Triple-A affiliate of the Cardinals -- is about a half-mile from the National Civil Rights Museum, which incorporates the Lorraine Motel, where Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

The inaugural 2007 game was a 5-1 Cardinals win over the Indians. But the socially conscious events surrounding it assured its continuity as an annual affair.

"It was a proud moment for all of baseball and I am excited that two great franchises have committed to carry on this significant tradition," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Major League Baseball and its players have contributed immensely to this movement and will continue to play an important role in our society's social history."

Selig will not be in attendance this year because of a complex travel schedule. He'll be returning from Japan, where the A's and Red Sox were to play regular season games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and is to go on to Washington, where President Bush is scheduled to throw out the first pitch prior to Sunday night's opener at Nationals Park.

Hank Aaron, MLB's former all-time home run leader, has agreed to act as Selig's surrogate.

This year's game will feature two of the most racially balanced organizations in baseball. The White Sox are led by Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen, a native of Venezuela.

"It should be very inspiring," said Jerry Reinsdorf, the club's chairman, about taking part in the event.

The Mets, in turn, are headed by Omar Minaya, a Dominican who became the first Hispanic general manager in MLB history when he was named to guide the Expos in 2002, and Willie Randolph, the first African-American manager in New York's rich Major League history.

"Just to be a part of something that raises awareness, I'm honored," said Randolph, who's beginning his third season on the Mets bench. "To recognize the struggles and what Dr. King did to bring about social change, you can't get much better than that."

Baseball has long been considered to have foreshadowed the Civil Rights movement. The sport was re-integrated on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That act came about 60 years after African-Americans were barred from the Major Leagues and more than a decade before U.S. public schools were fully integrated and African-Americans were admitted into what were then all-white public universities in the South.

The event will open on Friday with an MLB-hosted panel, discussing "Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement" at the museum, moderated by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree.

That evening, the second Beacon Awards will be presented at a fund-raising banquet. Charter recipients of the awards in '07, presented to individuals for significant contributions to civil rights around the world, were Vera Clemente, the widow of Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente; film-maker Spike Lee, and, posthumously, Negro League pioneer Buck O'Neil.

This year's winners are Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, Emmy and Grammy Award-winning actress Ruby Dee, and the late John H. Johnsons, founder of Johnson Publishing.

King was assassinated by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, which in 1991 was converted into part of the museum. King was in town to support striking sanitation workers. He had walked on freedom marches in the South many times in his life and had also been jailed for his efforts.

The museum, which memorializes the movement, includes a replica of the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to move from her front seat. The second-floor room where King was staying that fateful night has been restored to reflect the exact decor of 1968. Outside are parked automobiles from that era.

Both teams will walk through the museum, which is always a highlight of the event.

"It brings the focus back down to Memphis, back down to civil rights," Williams said. "What I urge everyone to do is not just continue to live in the past with this, not just talk about the Civil Rights Museum in the past, but let's visit it in current times. There are still civil rights being violated, whether it be different ethnic groups or sexual orientation or whatever, there are rights being violated. Although it's certainly different than what it was, nevertheless, to those people, it's still unfair."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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