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01/31/06 5:43 PM ET

Students learn of Robinson's courage

Red Sox celebrate Hall of Famer's life at JFK Library

BOSTON -- An auditorium full of 200 middle school students listened intently on Tuesday morning at the JFK Library as one speaker after another spoke of the virtues of one of the most important figures in American history.

This history class began as many do, with a short black-and-white film portraying the subject as heroic and groundbreaking. The opening movie scene detailed how Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey approached Jackie Robinson in 1946 in his office with an offer to become the first African-American player in the Majors.

What followed in the auditorium was a real-life lesson in courage, character and self-esteem.

Those themes reverberated through Robinson's life and were repeated again and again to the students from Umana/Barnes Middle School in East Boston. The occasion was the Fourth Annual Celebration of the Life of Jackie Robinson event conducted by the Boston Red Sox, on what would have been Robinson's 87th birthday.

"There are several days on the Red Sox calendar every year that most people mark and know well," said Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino. "Opening Day, of course, the All-Star break and the World Series. But what's become an important day on our calendar is Jan. 31 as we celebrate Jackie Robinson's life and try to perpetuate and keep alive his legacy through a few hundred young people every year."

Much of the day was spent highlighting and discussing the deep friendship between Robinson and another great American civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. Less than 12 hours before Tuesday's event, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, 78, died from complications due to a massive stroke and heart attack last August.

One of the emotional highlights came when motivational speaker and Orlando Magic senior vice president Pat Williams recited Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, the historic address which Williams saw in person on Aug. 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Williams told the students to read at least one hour a day for the rest of their lives and gave them each a book to get started, his latest work entitled, "How to be Like Jackie Robinson: Life Lessons from Baseball's Greatest Hero."

"It was Jackie Robinson that inspired Dr. King to the very core of his being and encouraged him and allowed him to live out the full potential of his life," Williams told the audience. "In 1947, we were living in a very different world than we are today."

Tommy Harper, who won the first of his two stolen base titles with the Seattle Pilots in 1969, set a Red Sox record with 54 stolen bases in 1973. Harper remembered the influence Robinson had on his career.

"I was fortunate enough to play 15 years of Major League baseball, and I always thought it was due to Jackie Robinson," said Harper, who now serves as a Red Sox player development consultant. "In fact, I was lucky enough to win two stolen base titles, one with Boston and one with [Seattle]. The first one I dedicated to Jackie Robinson, because that's just how much I felt about him."

Also making remarks was Congressman Richard Neal, who along with Sen. John Kerry, introduced legislation in their respective Houses of Congress to posthumously award Jackie Robinson the Congressional Gold Medal, which his family received from President George W. Bush in the United States Capitol rotunda on March 5, 2005.

Della Britton-Baeza, president/CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and George Mitrovich, president of the City Club of San Diego, also paid tribute to Robinson's legacy.

And while he couldn't be there in person, Robinson's former Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Carl Erskine addressed the crowd through a taped video. Erskine last year released his memoir, "What I Learned from Jackie Robinson."

Robinson's last season was in 1957 and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

Mike Petraglia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.