The three Beacon Award winners -- the late author and poet laureate Dr. Maya Angelou, music impresario Berry Gordy and football star, activist and action hero Jim Brown -- were all iconic in their own rights, and all united by a desire to make society a better and more inclusive place.
MLB commissioner Bud Selig spoke as part of the ceremony and said the history of baseball and progress have been irrevocably intertwined. Selig invoked the name of Jackie Robinson, who broke the sport's color barrier in 1947, and said the game must always strive to remember his legacy.
"The Civil Rights Game has become our platform to commemorate the courage and dignity of those who have contributed to our sport during this ground-breaking era," said Selig. "This weekend, we applaud those in baseball and beyond who have broken barriers, paved new paths and enriched our culture in various ways. Previous editions of the Civil Rights Game have taken us to Memphis, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Chicago, and in each city we've had the opportunity to use baseball as a common bond in order to bring people together. This event has allowed us to recall our shared American history so that we may use the lessons of the past to guide our collective future."
Four Hall of Famers -- Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan and Dave Winfield -- were in attendance to honor the award winners, each of whom had made an indelible mark on America. And both teams from the Civil Rights Game, the Astros and Orioles, came to pay their respects.
The event took on a somber tone due to the recent passing of Angelou, who had announced just last week that she wasn't feeling well enough to attend the ceremony. Angelou taped a video message in acceptance of her Beacon Award, but she passed away two days before the ceremony.
Angelou, the author of "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," won a flurry of honors in her lifetime including three Grammys, a Tony and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize. But it was her humanity and her unfailing eloquence that made the biggest impression on a nation divided by the times.
Robin Roberts, co-anchor of Good Morning America, accepted the award on Angelou's behalf, and she said that one particular quote will always stay with her. Angelou said in an interview that people may not remember what you say or what you do, but they'll always remember how you made them feel. That resonated for Roberts, largely because she always felt that Angelou radiated warmth.
"Every time I was in her presence, I felt love and joy," said Roberts as part of her introduction. "She was an absolute treasure who inspired society to see things differently. A true Renaissance woman, she taught us to see light where there was darkness and to dream dreams that seemed unimaginable. Maya Angelou taught us how to stand up against adversity and revel among the stars. We choose not to observe a moment of silence, because Dr. Angelou so relished the song of life."
Angelou, true to form, issued a poetic message of thanks in her final recorded statement. She cited an old proverb that says there are none so blind as those that choose not to see, but she also expressed optimism for the way America had changed during her lifetime. Surely, things are better now than they were 50 years ago, said Angelou, and hopefully they'll be better still in another 50 years.
"I regret that I cannot be with you in person. I wanted so to be there," she said. "I salute my fellow honorees Jim Brown and Berry Gordy and my friend Robin Roberts who so graciously agreed to introduce me. And I sincerely thank Commissioner Selig, Frank Robinson and the Houston Astros for this honor. But it is not about Maya Angelou alone; I'm merely standing for people who had the courage to speak when there appeared to be no words to be spoken. I stand for the people who had the fortitude to act when every action seemed to be futile. I stand for those who choose not to capitulate to adversity, but who opted instead to dance in the rain and to hold hands with their brothers and sisters."
Brown, a Hall of Fame running back who later gravitated to Hollywood movies and a lifetime of philanthropy, seemed touched by the recognition of his off-field endeavors. Brown helped create the Negro Industrial Economic Union to assist black-owned businesses in the '60s, and for the last two decades, his Amer-I-Can program has been aimed at empowering inner-city youth.
Those social-impact programs have never drawn the attention of his epic touchdowns, but Brown said he's long felt the call to use his celebrity to help people rise from poverty. Brown, in fact, said he considers himself a servant of the people, a higher calling from his heady days on the gridiron.
"I think it's a tremendous honor to be recognized in this area, because civil rights in this country have been a major issue throughout my lifetime and throughout the lifetime of most of us," said Brown before being feted at the Beacon Awards luncheon. "There have always been people that have worked behind the scenes to make change. ... I've always told minorities, 'Don't feel like a victim, because there are people from the ruling party that risked their lives to make things better for you and for us.' "
Gordy, the final honoree of the afternoon, was lauded for changing the world through music. Gordy founded Motown records, which birthed revolutionary artists like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Michael Jackson and The Jackson Five, among others.
Gordy's music enabled impoverished people to dream of better times, and it helped pull the country together through pop culture. But he'd be remiss, said Gordy, if he didn't recognize the impact that sports had on his life. Gordy said that Joe Louis beating Max Schemling in a 1938 heavyweight boxing title fight was a huge moment in his life, and he said his community rejoiced again when Robinson made the Major Leagues.
"I think it would be hard for me to think of all my successes and blessings and good fortune without including baseball and what it did for me," said Gordy at the close of his acceptance speech. "You have all made me feel a great part of your family. I'm grateful for your honoring me today and for all the years of sharing the same joy and love for our music that we at Motown had in making it."
Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter and an educational consultant with MLB, was on hand Friday, and she said she was really glad for the way the Civil Rights Game has grown over the years. It started out as an exhibition game, but it has grown to be a jewel of MLB's regular-season schedule.
The best part, she said, is that people look back to the triumphs of the past but also look forward to detemine how they can make the world a better place. That spirit would've resonated with her dad, said Robinson, and she's thrilled with the way that baseball continually pays tribute to his memory.
"His whole post-baseball career was focused on the civil rights movement," she said. "I think he would love this merging of civil rights and Major League Baseball. He always wanted to bring athletes and keep professional sports involved in change in this country. This is one of our ways to do it."