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06/19/09 8:14 PM EST

Distinguished panel discusses civil rights

Sports, business, political leaders gather for conversation

CINCINNATI -- In an emotional, impassioned and uplifting opening to the festivities surrounding Major League Baseball's bigger and better Civil Rights Game, a distinguished roundtable panel featuring Hall of Famers and local legends Oscar Robertson and Tony Perez gathered before a big crowd Friday to discuss a new "economic struggle," self-determination, yet-unrealized dreams and lessons of the past.

The Civil Rights Game itself is elevated in magnitude in this, its third year, featuring for the first time a regular-season game -- White Sox at Reds on Saturday night -- and a Major League ballpark. The game will be at Great American Ball Park, while the roundtable was held next door at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. It was streamed live on MLB.com and cut to the core of many issues and feelings.

"I can say without contradiction that Harriet Tubman is looking down with great pride," said Harvard Law School professor and moderator Charles Ogletree, prompting a loud ovation. "Not just that we're here at the Underground Center or that we're hosting the Civil Rights Game and honoring all those Negro Leagues players who didn't have the chance even though they had the talent all those decades ago, but also because it's the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, the 80th anniversary of the birth of Dr. [Martin Luther] King. This is the year that America has its first African-American president, Barack Obama. As someone who has mentored him and Michelle when they were at Harvard Law School, it is even more of a privilege to be part of this great panel."

The panelists included: Perez, a Cuban native and former first baseman of the Big Red Machine; Robertson, the University of Cincinnati All-American who went on to a Hall of Fame NBA career; Former All-Star second baseman and current MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds; Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport; Nathaniel Jones, former U.S. Court of Appeals Sixth Circuit judge and current minority shareholder in the Reds; James Clingman, creator of the Greater Cincinnati African-American Chamber of Commerce; and Lee Lowenfish, biographer of Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers magnate who in 1945 signed Jackie Robinson.

Robertson -- the "Big O" to an adoring crowd -- told one of the many stories on this afternoon that made you shake your head, made you a little angry, made you a little happy ... and mostly made you think about the state of civil rights.

He had been refused a scholarship to Indiana by then-Hoosier coach Branch McCracken, and that led him to sign with Cincinnati. Once there, he found very few minority students on campus.

"I wouldn't see anybody. I'd go to the gym and shoot hoops," Robertson recalled. "It's a funny thing ... we played in North Texas once, and they put a black cat in the locker room. Funny. I'm dressing, the teammates are as quiet as can be. Why? They wouldn't say a word. Why are they so quiet? I said, 'Oh, they put the cat in there for me?' Folks, where I'm from in Indianapolis, a cat is there to kill rats. I thought they had rats in that locker room."

This was not just a baseball story, this Civil Rights Game and its surrounding events were brought here to create an open and honest dialogue, to help facilitate what some at the event said is nowhere near a satisfactory picture of equality in America.

Hank Aaron, who will be presented with the Beacon Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday by Commissioner Bud Selig, was among those pushing for faster progress. He sat in the front row next to Reds majority owner Bob Castellini, and at the end of the roundtable, he took the microphone and delivered a heartfelt message.

"In baseball -- that's my little world -- I would like for everyone to understand that we are still trying to get a piece of the pie," Aaron said. "We are still trying to get where we were supposed to get when Jackie broke into baseball. I just don't want people to lose the focus on what this is all about. There's been a few of us [who] reached the top, but a lot of us still trying to get to the top.

"There are so many things I think Major League Baseball can do to help. ... We have not seen black players moving through the system like they used to. I'd like to see more American blacks playing professional baseball. Baseball needs to get out of the ditch and look at the big picture and see what can be done to help our kids, because something needs to be done."

Clingman is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati and chairman of the Economic Development Committee of the NAACP's Cincinnati branch, and he contended that "civil rights" as a movement is now primarily about economic have vs. have-not. Indeed, his words were supported in an effusive question-and-answer session by a local woman who said it was fine to gather mixed races in an auditorium for positive progress but that "after this is over, we will go back to our divided city ... the real conversation needs to be on racism."

"There was a time when civil rights meant time to vote. Now civil rights struggle is on the economic level," Clingman said. "We need entrepreneurship. That's the key to the new civil rights economic struggle. I would like to see -- I'm seeing it, but would like to see more -- involvement between baseball, basketball and all the sports that generate billions of dollars to connect with those who are on the lower level of the economic tier, and figure out ways to increase economic stewardship and entrepreneurship. We don't want to just put it all on baseball, but on sports. We need to figure out what the new civil rights struggle is, as opposed to the civil rights struggles of the past.

"There are many organizations espousing the new civil rights struggle of economics. We need to close the wealth gap, and we need a new economic map to focus on entrepreneurship. Bottom line is, people basically know that. That's what runs this country. As brother Jesse Jackson said once, 'Capitalism without capital just isn't.' We need to move toward a stronger economic base that we can leave for our children, especially in Cincinnati. ... I believe more blacks need to be on the top of the economic scale so we can teach our youth and provide for them when we're gone."

Perez said he had no sense of America's Civil Rights movement or racial strife while being raised in Cuba. He discovered it after being signed by the Reds.

"When I signed my first professional contract in 1960, I went to Tampa, where Cincinnati used to train," he said. "Surprisingly, they picked me up at airport and drove me about an hour. Then we go to downtown Tampa. I said, 'Where we going?' They said, 'No you have to go to the black side. You can't stay in the downtown where the white players are.'

"I didn't know that. Nobody told me that. I got to the hotel, and all the blacks and Latin players were there. They'd leave us there after practice and pick us up the same day -- and 'Don't miss the bus!' They opened a restaurant up at a certain time for you -- don't miss it or you won't eat, either. But nothing could stop me from what I wanted. I decided to play baseball. When I got here everything was fine. Black players, Latin players, Frank Robinson, Leo Cardenas, Vada Pinson, lots of players. What I saw of them, they helped me, they built my confidence so high. This city, the way they treated me was great."

Reynolds, a Major Leaguer from 1983-94, said that same inner drive exhibited by Perez and Robertson during their careers is what people need now. He said it can't be based on what others think of you, and it can't be based on thinking small.

"The mission is to have goals, and dreams," Reynolds said. "The bigger the goal, the bigger the aspiration, you achieve big things. Little goals, little aspirations, achieve little things.

"I'll never forget when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record," said Reynolds, bringing an ovation from the crowd. "And through the years, I've been able to spend time with him, read on him, learn about the hate mail. I'm just a young boy at that time so I don't fully get the scope of racism in American and all the things he had to have endured. And I'll never forget the whole family gathered around the TV. It was a day almost like when Barack Obama became president of the U.S. We were all gathered around the TV. It wasn't just the significance of 715. It was this black man, in Georgia, and he was able to stand in front of the country and do something that was going to make so many people proud."

Reynolds said after the event that "the biggest thing is all these guys paved the way. It's not just baseball. Look at Oscar Robertson. So many people paved the way for opportunities today. I think it's cool when people of all races say anything on this subject. There's a lot of work to do. It was more of getting the word out, and this weekend has really put it on the forefront of conversation. We're not there yet, not even close."

Reynolds cited the lack of African-Americans in the College World Series as one example of economic inequality, citing the expense of youth elite teams and travel tournaments for developing ballplayers.

Jones said dropout rates among African-American youths remains a major problem that should be everyone's business.

"It's crucial for organizations such as baseball to join community after community in those efforts aimed at dealing with the fundamental problems indigenous in those communities," he said. "We've got to do something about the dropout rates, where we have less than 40 percent of minorities graduating. We've got to do something with mentoring.

"Unless we deal with this dropout question, and use the resources baseball can provide -- and in this case they are doing that -- we have a problem. We need to encourage more of our professional teams to hook up with these programs in these cities to help these youngsters overcome the problems that lead them to drop out in the fourth or fifth grade."

Ogletree said his main takeaway of the roundtable was "the rich and contextual thoughts by Oscar, which were just outstanding. He put the whole matter of overcoming racial adversity into context. Like Hank, he talked about: if you want to change the situation, you can. These legends tell us we can, and that means a lot to hear it from them."

The Civil Rights Game weekend continues with the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards luncheon on Saturday, featuring former president Bill Clinton as the keynote speaker. Besides Aaron's "Life" honor, Beacon awards will be given to Muhammad Ali for "Change" and to Bill Cosby for "Hope."

"It means the game of baseball is not just a game," Ogletree said of the roundtable and the entire event. "It's addressing inequality. It's about discussing our successes, but also to engage in ways to address civil rights."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.