He really didn't know where he fit among the other more noteworthy speakers.
"I remember turning to Martin Luther King III, who was to my left, and asking him, 'I see Hank Aaron here. I see Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter. I see Malcolm X's daughter to my right,'" Williams said. "'I know why you guys are all here. Why the hell am I up here?'"
Williams and the White Sox will play host to the seventh Civil Rights Game this weekend, with the actual game against the Rangers scheduled for a 6:10 p.m. CT start on Saturday at U.S. Cellular Field. The White Sox will be the first American League team to host a weekend that truly transcends baseball.
The Civil Rights Game began in 2007 and was played the first two years at AutoZone Park in Memphis at the end of Spring Training. The first game featured the Indians and Cardinals, followed by the White Sox and Mets in 2008. The game moved to the regular season and to Cincinnati for two years in 2009-10, with the White Sox involved in the first Interleague Civil Rights Game in 2009, and then was played in Atlanta the past two seasons.
The Civil Rights Game events were developed to pay tribute to all of those who fought on and off the field for equal rights for all Americans. The 2013 Civil Rights Game will air nationally on MLB Network, locally on Comcast Sportsnet in Chicago and on FOX Sports Southwest in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.
At each Civil Rights Game, Major League Baseball bestows Beacon Awards to individuals whose lives have been emblematic of the spirit of the civil rights movement. In 2007, Buck O'Neil, Spike Lee and Vera Clemente were given awards, followed by Frank Robinson, Ruby Dee and John H. Johnson in 2008. Hank Aaron, Muhammed Ali and Bill Cosby took the honors in 2009, and Willie Mays, Billie Jean King and Harry Belafonte won the awards in 2011. Last year, Ernie Banks, Carlos Santana and Morgan Freeman were honored.
This year, former Major League and football star Bo Jackson will be feted at the Beacon Awards Luncheon at 11:30 a.m. CT at the Downtown Marriott Magnificent Mile. Information for the Civil Rights Game and the MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon can be found at MLB.com/civilrightsgame.
Music legend Aretha Franklin, a Beacon Award winner along with Jackson, will not be able to attend because of health issues. She will receive her award at a later date.
Proceeds from the luncheon will benefit the Chicago Urban League and La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago. Founded in 1916, the Chicago Urban League is committed to empowering African-Americans with the skills and resources needed to find jobs, affordable housing, gain educational opportunities and grow businesses. La Rabida, a grant recipient of the White Sox Community Fund, is a private non-profit hospital that serves approximately 7,500 children annually who require primary and specialty care to address complex and challenging medical conditions.
With the White Sox hosting this year's game, they become the first team to be involved in three games. It seems fitting that the contest moves to Chicago, not only because of its rich African-American history and its role in the civil rights movement, but also because of White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf's commitment to diversity in hiring since his ownership group took over the White Sox in 1981.
Reinsdorf was given a special award at the 2008 Beacon Awards in recognition of his commitment to diversity within the sport. Reinsdorf called the award one of the three moments of true surprise in his life, the others being his 50th-birthday party and when White Sox captain Paul Konerko presented Reinsdorf with the baseball from the final out of the 2005 World Series on the stage of the 2.5-million-strong victory celebration in downtown Chicago.
"Paulie giving me the ball is still No. 1," said Reinsdorf, speaking the morning after the Beacon Award was presented in Memphis. "But I was surprised. Really stunned."
Reinsdorf's commitment to diversity can be seen everywhere in the organization, from the front office to its relationships with minority-owned businesses to the club's community outreach. Jerry Manuel and Williams became the first African-American manager-and-GM tandem when they led the White Sox. The White Sox also have developed a highly successful Amateur City Elite baseball program to help inner-city kids show off their baseball skills in a competitive environment and help produce collegiate opportunities.
So when the topic of hosting the Civil Rights Game was broached, the Sox instantly stepped up.
"There's a responsibility that you have when you are part of a community as we are," Williams said. "Yes, we want to give our fans a winning ballclub. We also want to give them wins in the areas of community service and the areas of fan friendliness and just servitude overall. And a diverse experience, because not everyone gravitates or is interested in the same things. And at the same time, a little bit of an education, too.
"So, that's why you'll see different things, different themes of culture around here that celebrate another person's, another group's music, dress, all the different things that make us who we are in the country. We thought with the longstanding history of African-Americans here in the city of Chicago, as well as today's contributors, we would be honored to volunteer and that's exactly what we did. We volunteered."
Once again, Williams will be part of the Civil Rights Game Roundtable, with "Baseball and The Civil Rights Movement" running Friday from 12:30-2 p.m. CT at the Chicago Cultural Center. Williams undoubtedly will have memories of that first panel running through his head as he sits down with agent Larry Reynolds; Thomas Tull, the CEO of Legendary Pictures and the executive producer of "42," the movie about Robinson, 42; MLB's Wendy Lewis; and Shari Runner, the senior vice president OF strategy for the Chicago Urban League. The discussion will be moderated by MLB Network's Harold Reynolds.
The weekend in Memphis five years ago holds memories for all members of the White Sox traveling party who saw a recreated part of the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King was killed in 1968, as part of the Civil Rights Museum tour. They also heard a stirring speech at the Beacon Awards Luncheon by Rev. Billy Kyles, who was near King when he was shot.
"You have to keep reminding people," Reinsdorf said. "It's like the Holocaust. If they stop teaching it, people are going to forget about it. You have to keep teaching it.
"Today, the world is so much better from an equal-opportunity standpoint but still has a long way to go. So I think it's important that people realize how bad it was."