Saturday, May 14, 2011

MLB to Honor Heroes in Civil Rights Game

By Alden Gonzalez /

After months of painstaking planning by Major League Baseball, the 2011 Civil Rights Game is finally just around the corner.

"I'm ecstatic," said MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon, the man hoping to ensure the city of Atlanta feels the same way.

Henry Aaron
The fifth annual Delta Civil Rights Game will take place on Sunday at Turner Field, pairing the Phillies and Braves, two teams with superstar African-American players at a time when there aren't many, in a city once regarded as the cradle of the civil rights movement.

But Sunday's celebratory game is merely the culmination. Much more will take place before then.

As part of its yearly effort to pay tribute to those who fought for equal rights, both on the field and off, MLB will stage a roundtable discussion that will touch on key social issues, an interactive youth summit, a Beacon Awards banquet, a Saturday game paying tribute to the Negro Leagues and a concert put on by one of the most famous rappers to come out of Atlanta.

Then, finally, for the first time on a Sunday, baseball will host the ever-evolving Civil Rights Game.

"We've done a lot," Solomon said. "And I think this is just growing and growing and growing."

But Solomon wanted even more growth. He wanted to initially stage two new events in the days leading up to the game: a two-day Bud Selig Business Conference that would promote workforce diversity and a red-carpet screening of the documentary "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream" at the Fox Theatre.

In the end, Solomon felt perhaps they were being a little "overambitious," and decided to limit the schedule to make sure they got the most out of each event.

"We were being very ambitious this year," Solomon said. "And I think that, in the end, maybe we wanted to make sure we were successful, instead of kind of sure that the whole thing would be successful."

But there will still be plenty to keep the city of Atlanta busy this week.

Ernie Banks
Events will kick off with the Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Friday, May 13. The forum, moderated by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, will kick off at 3 p.m. ET and is open to the public.

On the panel will be singer Gloria Gaynor, activist Dolores Huerta, Angels owner Arte Moreno and National Urban League executive director Marc Morial.

Also taking part will be United Farms Worker co-founder Dolores Huerta, MLB vice president of youth and facility development Darrell Miller and U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Bryan Roberts.

The discussion will air live on at noon ET, and fans who want to ask the panel questions can do so by e-mailing them to

Morgan Freeman
At 9 a.m. on Saturday at Centennial Olympic Park, kids can attend a free event that will give them the opportunity to take part in baseball and softball clinics with Major League players, followed by a Q&A discussion and a parade to Turner Field.

To Solomon, that Youth Summit, presented by Army/"Wanna Play?", "brings the most joy to my heart."

"When you have all those kids running around," Solomon said, "and baseball is the catalyst, baseball is the lynchpin of their fun, and many kids receive free gloves, free caps [and] T-shirts [and] they interact with baseball players [and] local celebrities, it's just a real fun event."

That afternoon's 1:10 p.m. ET game between the Phillies and Braves will celebrate the Negro Leagues, which folded shortly after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Commemorative videos will be played, former Negro League players will be on the field and the Phillies and Braves will play in replicas of their respective cities' Negro League uniforms.

Carlos Santana

Ludacris, one of Atlanta's proudest sons, will then perform a free postgame concert with a still-unannounced guest. Later that night, at 7 p.m. at the Omni Hotel Grand Ballroom, the MLB Beacon Awards Banquet, presented by Belk, will take place.

There, Hall of Famer and Cubs legend Ernie Banks (Beacon of Life), Academy Award-winning Actor Morgan Freeman (Beacon of Hope) and Grammy Award-winning artist Carlos Santana (Beacon of Change) will be honored.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton, former Cy Young Award winner Don Newcombe and entertainer Harry Belafonte will serve as presenters. And Braves legend Hank Aaron along with five "Freedom Riders" -- civil rights activists who rode buses into segregated southern cities to test the U.S. Supreme Court 
decision Boynton v. Virginia -- will be honored.

Then, on Sunday, the Civil Rights Game will take place at 1:35 p.m. ET, airing on TBS.

The contest will honor the Beacon Award winners on-field, will have teams sporting replica 1974 uniforms and will carry the torch of honoring baseball's impact in civil rights, a concept that began as an exhibition in Memphis from 2007-08, then worked its way into the regular-season schedule in Cincinnati from 2009-10 and is now in Atlanta for the next couple of seasons.

That Ryan Howard, Jason Heyward and Jimmy Rollins will be there to celebrate it is just icing on the cake.

"There are a lot of things that are good that are going on to curb the decline of African-American players," Solomon said. "I think that bringing in these two teams that happen to have superstars of African-American heritage on either side of the field -- I think it's a great way to show African-American kids there is a place for them in Major League Baseball."

Tickets for the Civil Rights Game and preceding events can be purchased at, with proceeds being donated to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, which is building a memorial near the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials in Washington, D.C.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for

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