The panel included distinguished athletes and men of letters, and they spoke for 90 minutes about their lives in sports and outside of them. Baseball immortals Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron were in the audience for the discussion, and panelist Don Newcombe referenced them by name at one point.
"I've seen changes take place," said Newcombe, formerly of the Dodgers. "I've seen the millions of dollars they've invested to help kids of all colors. Baseball has become a big international sport now. You can't just concentrate on black children, because all of the other kids are there with them. Latinos. Asians. ... I think with young blacks, they're more interested in exciting sports like basketball and football. They want to be like Michael Jordan or like Kobe Bryant. They want to play those sports where there's all that excitement from the fans. Baseball's exciting, and I've been in it all my life. I don't know if Frank or Hank would agree, but without baseball, we don't know where we'd be."
And that was the gist of the discussion, the ways in which advances in baseball and society have mirrored one another. Newcombe made his Major League debut in 1949, and he went on to become the first African-American pitcher to win 20 games and start in a World Series game.
But he wasn't the only distinguished member of the panel. Mel Pender, a gold medalist on the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, was in attendance, as were civil rights activist Julian Bond and Reverend Dr. Robert Franklin, the president of nearby Morehouse College. Doug Shipman, chief executive officer of the National Center for Civil & Human Rights, provided another voice of perspective.
The panel took turns speaking about how society has changed for the better over the last few decades, and Pender told of his service in the military and how it changed his life.
"I didn't start running track until I was 25 years old," said Pender. "When I went to school here [in Atlanta], we didn't have the fields and the tracks and the equipment. We had all the hand-me-downs from the white school. We practiced on rocks. We didn't have a full field. It really hurt a lot, because I could've had an opportunity to be the fastest person in the world if I had coaching and if I had facilities. I was good, but didn't know how good I was. I didn't really find out how good I was until I was 25."
The military literally allowed Pender to be all he could be, and sports were directly responsible for expanding his horizons. Pender, who won a gold medal as part of the 4x100-meter relay team in 1968, always felt a natural reticence toward education and didn't think he was smart enough to attend college.
That mindset changed in the military, when he found out that he had a 122 IQ when testing for an elevated rank. Pender went on to attain a degree from Adelphi University and to coach track at West Point, and he said that Olympics in 1968 changed the lives of countless young Americans.
Penders explained that John Carlos and Tommy Smith spoke for an entire generation when they extended their fist on the medal platform, refusing to be pigeonholed at home or abroad.
"Before we went to the 1968 Games, we trained at Tahoe, California," said Pender. "Avery Brundage would call us up and call us boys -- call us names -- and threaten to kick us out of the Games. We kind of organized ourselves. We wanted to show the world how great we were. We said, 'We're going to persevere and we're going to show the world that we're men and not just black men. We're men. We're Americans, black Americans, and we're going to show them how great we were.'
"I didn't know that John and Tommy were going to do what they did, but when they got on the victory stand, I was the proudest person in the world. For someone to stand up and to have the bravery -- it was so brave to stand there and do what they did -- to show the world that we're athletes. We're men. We're athletes and we're representing everyone in America. Not just black people."
Shipman provided perspective on the past, saying that it was important for people like Pender and Newcombe to share the details of their experience with subsequent generations. For too many people, said Shipman, history is just that -- a bunch of names and dates without particular relevance.
"I think we have to realize that if you lived through this period -- whether you were an athlete, an activist or just a person -- it's on your memory in a way that's physical," Shipman said of the Civil Rights era. "It's almost the same as how Holocaust survivors tell you that they'll never forget, and they'll often show you a tattoo. This is an invisible mark. If you were born after it like me -- even if you study it and work in it like me -- it's hard to understand at that deepest level. It's hard to internalize what it was like."
Franklin provided one of the most interesting commentaries when he said that teachers could learn a lot from athletic coaches, who have somehow found a way to communicate to members of society previously thought to be unteachable. Teachers need to find a way to harness that ability, he said, to make students believe in themselves and push to achieve things that seem impossible.
Furthermore, he said, teachers shouldn't be telling students not to choose athletes as role models. It's already too late for that, said Franklin, and now we have to use that phenomenon.
"There's nothing wrong with that kind of idealism, that kind of drive," he said. "And think about the discipline for these kids, many of them in urban, impoverished areas with nothing else going on around them. They're dreaming and they're watching television and they're fixating on role models and heroes. Teenage young adolescents are incredible hero worshipers. I'm going to affirm that and say that's actually a pretty good foundation on which we can build and do some other things, rather than some community leaders who I think mistakenly try to stigmatize or disabuse the kids of that notion. It's OK. Let that live in them. The key I think for educators and other community and faith leaders is to help transfer that idealism and drive onto other alternatives, sort of your backup plan."
That roundtable discussion, part of the Civil Rights Game weekend in Atlanta, was the first event in a program designed to elevate the discussion of race and sports. The weekend will continue with the Beacon Awards on Saturday morning and the Civil Rights Game at Turner Field that night.
Bond, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, verbalized why Atlanta was such a hotbed for the Civil Rights movement, and why it's such an important city for racial relations going forward.
"Atlanta is the center of black education," said Bond. "Atlanta had a big, black middle class that was able to support any movement for progress. Atlanta had this great airport, and you were able to go from here to almost anywhere in the world very quickly. So you were able to take the message of the movement any place in the country or any place of the world. All of these factors taken together made this a perfect center for his, and we had the good fortune to be the hometown of Martin Luther King, who was, of course, the central figure for this movement, and whose oratory, courage and bravery just created so many opportunities for everyone to say, 'Gee, I can do something like that.'"
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less