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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- At an emotional and heart-wrenching luncheon to introduce Major League Baseball's inaugural Beacon Awards on Saturday, Rev. Billy Kyles was called to the podium at the Peabody Hotel to offer an invocation.
Instead, what he gave was a brief recollection that was more than apropos for an audience that had gathered in the hours before MLB's first Civil Rights Game, an exhibition tilt between the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians at nearby AutoZone Park.
Kyles was just to the left of Rev. Martin Luther King nearly 39 years ago on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when the civil rights leader was struck dead by an assassin's bullet. Kyles, who was preparing to host King for dinner at his home, wondered openly why he had been present that day and since has come to the conclusion that he was there to be a witness.
"They killed the dreamer that day," Rev. Kyles said as the story and his voice reached a crescendo. "But they didn't kill the dream."
Amidst that backdrop of tears and quiet sobbing, MLB presented its Beacon Awards to filmmaker Spike Lee, Vera Clemente, the widow of Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente, and posthumously to Buck O'Neil, the Negro League icon who passed away this past Oct. 6.
"This game will be played every year in Memphis in honor of Dr. King," Commissioner Bud Selig said in his prepared remarks. "In our modest way, Major League Baseball has a chance to preserve the memory of Dr. King and all the people who sacrificed their lives to the civil rights movement."
O'Neil was presented with the Beacon of Life Award by Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman and ESPN baseball analyst. It was accepted by Don Motley, the executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, who has had his own sentiments to deal with since O'Neil's passing.
O'Neil was given the award for his tireless campaigning to revive the memory of the Negro Leagues and all of its players, who were once barred from playing in the Major Leagues before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
"I came over to Memphis [from Kansas City on Friday] and my wife asked me how it felt not to be picking up Buck," Motley said as he accepted the award. "I'd picked him up almost every day for 17 years."
Edgar Martinez, the great designated hitter for the Seattle Mariners, presented the Beacon of Hope Award to Vera Clemente for her dedication to Puerto Rican youth through the development and operation of Ciudad Deportiva on her native island. Her husband, Roberto, perished in 1972 off the coast of Puerto Rico when his plane, carrying goods on a humanitarian mission to earthquake-torn Nicaragua, crashed in the ocean well before he could realize his passion to build the sports complex.
"That was 36 years ago," she said. "Roberto didn't have a chance to realize his dream. Now he has had a chance to realize that dream."
Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame outfielder and the first African-American big league manager, presented the Beacon of Change award to Lee in honor of his career raising the consciousness of audiences with his various and sundry groundbreaking films. Lee also produced an eight-minute documentary on baseball's role in the civil rights movement that was unveiled at the luncheon.
Robinson openly teased Lee for being a devoted fan of the New York Yankees and NBA's New York Knicks before presenting the award.
"At least one out of two isn't bad," Robinson said. "But then, this isn't supposed to be a roast."
Lee, in turn, chided Robinson for being a member of the highly-favored Baltimore Orioles squad that lost the 1969 World Series to the upstart New York Mets in five games. As a young man, Lee said he attended the games in that Series at Shea Stadium over the protests of his mother, but with the blessing of his father.
"You baited me," Lee kidded Robinson after the ceremony was over.
The Civil Rights Game, presented by AutoZone, was broadcast live by ESPN and MLB.TV, which led off the contest with a one-hour pregame show. The seven-year-old downtown ballpark is home to the Memphis Redbirds, the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate.
The game was prefaced on Friday by a distinguished panel of baseball experts, college professors and civic leaders, who took part in a rousing two-hour discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum that delved into MLB's effort to re-engage African American youth in the sport.
At the luncheon, Julian Bond, another major civil rights leader, was the keynote speaker and Emmy Award-winning actress Lynn Whitfield a most charming Mistress of Ceremonies.
Bond, who once took a class from Rev. King, recalled a day when the leader complained about the depth's of despair of the movement as the two were strolling on campus, saying, "I have a nightmare."
"I told him to turn that around," Bond said to much laughter. "I have a dream."
Still, it was Rev. Kyles who set the tone, not only for the luncheon, but for the two days of festivities with his tale about spending the last hour of King's life with him in a dank motel room.
"It was very moving," Selig said afterward about the luncheon. "It was something very special and something to be very proud of."