CHICAGO -- The Civil Rights Game carries enough star power annually to make a significant impact by itself, but there was something poetic about this particular celebration of progress being tied to other moments of historical significance.
Earlier this year, the nation watched the groundbreaking film "42," detailing the life and struggles of Jackie Robinson as he broke into the big leagues as the first African-American player in 1947. And this weekend, the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, widely considered as the pinnacle event of the civil rights movement.
Both historical entities were mentioned several times before and during the annual Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Luncheon on Saturday afternoon in downtown Chicago. As the industry acknowledges baseball's continuing responsibilities as a social institution, the Civil Rights Weekend events -- culminating with the Civil Rights Game between the White Sox and Rangers on Saturday night at U.S. Cellular Field -- shed a bright light on how much progress has been made, but also how much work there still is to do.
Commissioner Bud Selig, addressing several hundred guests in attendance to witness Bo Jackson receiving the Beacon of Life award and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, honored with the Beacon of Change award, noted the impact minorities in every industry have made to moving America forward.
"We recognize the worlds of academia, business and entertainment as their own trailblazers who opened doors to their chosen fields," Selig said. "Thus, the Civil Rights Game is our national pastime's platform to hail the achievements of these groundbreaking industries, and to thank them for their contributions to our society."
Chicago has a rich baseball history that started long before African-American players joined the Major League ranks. The Chicago American Giants were formed by Rube Foster, who earned the nickname "Father of Black Baseball" after establishing the American Giants as a premier independent team through the 1910s.
Foster also organized the Negro National League in 1920, with the Giants as a cornerstone franchise. The American Giants won five Negro National League pennants and two Negro World Series championships.
Keynote speaker Michael Wilbon, a longtime sports reporter perhaps best known for his work on ESPN, grew up as a baseball-playing South Sider who rooted first for the White Sox and later, the Cubs, despite the fact that his father was once "shooed away from the box office" at Wrigley Field upon attempting to buy a ticket to watch Robinson's very first game with the Dodgers in Chicago.
Wilbon spoke passionately about how baseball -- "not basketball, not football," was once the first choice for kids in his neighborhood -- "yes, the first choice for black kids." He also broke down how truly ahead of his time Robinson was in breaking the color barrier: it occurred seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, eight years before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus, 17 years before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and two decades before the U.S. Supreme Court got rid of laws banning interracial marriage.
"Ballparks ended up being the first place where blacks and whites -- without much effort -- sit together, eat popcorn and root for the home team," Wilbon said. "Whether it's the American League White Sox or Negro League American Giants."
Upon accepting his award, Jackson, considered by many to be one of the best athletes in history, talked about stories he heard from family members about what life was like for minorities in the deep South.
"You couldn't go into the front door of certain white establishments," said Jackson, who grew up in Alabama. "You had to walk on a different side of the sidewalk. You couldn't talk to certain people. The things that our parents told us during that time was 'that's just how things are.'
"Our parents spoke of Dr. King and said, 'He gives us black folk hope.' When you have hope, it makes you want to get up tomorrow and go to work and makes you want to perform better and makes you want to do your job better."
Jackson mentioned a recent speaking engagement he attended in south Alabama, during which a gentleman asked, "Mr. Jackson, have you ever experienced racism and what do you think of racism?"
"I said, 'Believe it or not, I am a racist,'" Jackson recalled. "Yes, I am a racist. Let me tell you the type of racist that I am. It doesn't matter if you're black, white, green, yellow, plaid, stripes up your back ... I don't care. I am a racist against ignorant people."
Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter, participated in the March on Washington after her dad came home and said, "We, as a family, have to have a legacy. And our legacy is social change." Their first mission was the March on Washington, where they marched and "stood in rapt attention" as Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
Robinson, addressing the luncheon audience, then helped unveil a special surprise from the U.S. Postal Service likely to serve as a valuable collector's item: a 1963 March on Washington stamp.
Many legendary players and current MLB dignitaries were in the crowd at the Beacon Awards Luncheon, including Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, Joe Torre, Minnie Minoso, Larry Doby Jr. (son of Larry Doby, the first African-American player to play in the American League) and Willie Horton. White Sox legend Frank Thomas presented Jackson with the Beacon of Life award, while Horton accepted the Beacon of Change award on behalf of the ailing Franklin, who was unable to attend the event.
One recurring theme of the day, and of the weekend, and, really, of this generation, was Robinson and his indelible stamp on the history of baseball for making sacrifices no one, thankfully, will ever have to make again. Even Aaron, who endured terrible racist treatment as he pursued, and broke, Babe Ruth's home run record in 1974, categorized his suffering as a mere blip compared to Robinson's.
"Listen, I just went through a little tidbit of what Jackie went through ... I had nothing," Aaron said. "All I had to do was walk out there and hit a baseball, go back in somewhere and hide and go back out the next day and hit another baseball. He had it the toughest of all."