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Cincinnati backdrop for Civil Rights fest

Cincinnati backdrop for Civil Rights

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CINCINNATI -- Thousands of people from different races and backgrounds will converge on downtown Cincinnati tonight to celebrate the efforts to give everyone the same chances and opportunities for success.

The Civil Rights Game will be played between the Reds and White Sox at Great American Ball Park. Not only will it provide a showcase for Cincinnati, it will be highlighting efforts by Major League Baseball to create a level playing field for all.

"Baseball represents our country very well because we have all walks of life here," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said on Friday. "We have all kinds of different nationalities, and we're all the same."

Activity began late this morning, well before the game broadcast at 7:10 p.m. ET at Great American Ball Park.

At 11:30 a.m., three legendary icons were honored during the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Luncheon at the Duke Energy Center in downtown Cincinnati.

The Beacon Awards recognize individuals "whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement." The MLB Beacon of Life Award will be presented by Commissioner Bud Selig to Hank Aaron. Boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard will give the MLB Beacon of Change Award to the legendary Muhammad Ali. Comedian and television star Bill Cosby will receive the MLB Beacon of Hope Award from Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson.

All three Beacon Award winners have been previously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the highest civilian honor that is possible in the United States.

The luncheon was hosted by CNN's Soledad O'Brien and former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to deliver the keynote address.

The Network's coverage, beginning at 5:45 p.m. ET, includes press conferences, pregame festivities, a clip of Harold Reynolds with President Clinton and the beginning of the game itself.

Down the street at Fountain Square, thousands of young people are expected to be on hand for the Civil Rights Game Youth Summit and participate in a new MLB youth initiative called "Wanna Play?"

From 2-7 p.m., Fifth Street by the Square is closed to traffic as kids test their skills in batting cages, on pitching mounds and running from home to first base. There will be prizes available, including 300 gloves and game tickets. The event is free to the public.

Reds players Brandon Phillips and Jerry Hairston Jr., former Red Eric Davis and MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds will hold a clinic and take part in the youth summit.

"Wanna Play?" is a marketing effort to create and strengthen the connection between children from the African-American community and Major League Baseball.

At approximately 6:50 p.m., on-field ceremonies will begin to again honor the achievements by Aaron, Ali and Cosby. Grammy Award-winning gospel singer BeBe Winans will sing the national anthem, and country singer Rissi Palmer will sing "America the Beautiful."

Former Reds star, Hall of Famer and 2008 Beacon of Life Award winner Frank Robinson will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Robinson will be accompanied by Negro League players Chuck "Charlie Fine" Harmon, Charles "Whip" Davis, Don "Groundhog" Johnson, Ron "Bunny" Warren and Tom "High Pockets" Turner. The Reverends Donald G. Dixon of Hyde Park United Methodist Church and Damon Lynch Jr. of New Jerusalem Baptist Church will serve as honorary captains for the game.

When the Reds and White Sox take the field in front of a sold-out park, both teams will be wearing throwback uniforms from 1964, the year that the Civil Rights Act was passed to outlaw racial segregation in schools, public places and employment.

On Friday afternoon, the Baseball and Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion was held at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, located next door to Great American Ball Park. It was moderated by Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, and featured panelists like Reds great and Hall of Famer Tony Perez, basketball Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson and Reynolds.

After the Reds' 4-3 win over the White Sox Friday, Leonard, a former championship boxer, gave a motivational speech on the field before the Reds held a special fireworks display.

For the first time in its three editions, the Civil Rights Game is being held at a big league ballpark during the regular season. It was held in Memphis as a preseason exhibition the previous two years.

When the league decided to move the game, the Reds and Cincinnati made an enthusiastic lobbying effort -- not just for 2009, but also 2010.

"We were picked to be the host city because of our passion for the event," owner Bob Castellini said. "The Freedom Center has relevance to the topic, and our city has a venue layout with the hotels being walking distance to the Duke Energy Convention Center, Great American Ball Park, Fountain Square and the Freedom Center."

This will be the second time the White Sox have participated in the Civil Rights Game. Chicago played the Mets last year in Memphis, and it proved to be a special time.

"There were a lot of memories," White Sox general manager Kenny Williams said this week. "Walking through the Lorraine Hotel, for sure, and experiencing that whole thing, and then watching my players of all cultures really kind of absorbing it, it was an educational experience, it was an emotional experience, one that I certainly won't ever forget. I'll end up taking my children down there, my grandchildren down there at some point. Cincinnati, I'm not as familiar with, so that'll be educational for me as well."

The Reds wanted to prove that their city can host an All-Star Game and have pulled out all the stops to guarantee a memorable weekend.

"It's about showcasing what the city of Cincinnati can do to host any event," said Karen Forgus, the club's senior vice president of business operations. "Phil and [owner] Bob [Castellini] feel strongly that because Cincinnati has such a great pedigree in baseball, we should be one of the first places they think of."

Despite the pageantry of the night and the weekend, tonight's game will count like any other in the regular season. But it will definitely be one of the more meaningful games of the season -- no matter what the box score says.

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

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