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05/15/10 1:31 AM EST

Roundtable big hit on Civil Rights weekend

Panel recognizes those before who paved way to play

CINCINNATI -- Role model. Legacy. Responsibility.

It was those concepts that echoed as the weekend of festivities surrounding the Gillette Civil Rights Game began Friday, ideas the distinguished panel of African-Americans who participated in a roundtable Friday at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center made it clear they embrace fully.

Each of the six panelists acknowledged a debt to those who came before them, to those who opened doors that were previously closed, to those who withstood indignity so they could have opportunity.

But, then, it was with those concepts in mind that the Civil Rights Game and this roundtable within it came about in the first place.

"Major League Baseball has been a role model for years," MLB vice president for on-field operations Jimmie Lee Solomon said, after the roundtable kicked off the fourth annual Civil Rights Game weekend. "Baseball was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, integrating long before the Little Rock Nine, before Rosa Parks decided she wouldn't sit in the back of the bus.

"Baseball, starting with Jackie Robinson, showed society that not only can blacks and whites work together and play together, but they can win together."

The roundtable, moderated by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, included Reds baseball legends Joe Morgan and Barry Larkin, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and former Bengals linebacker and Cincinnati city councilman Reggie Williams, tennis star Zina Garrison and retired Army command sergeant major Michele Jones, currently serving as White House military liaison. Other baseball luminaries, such as Hank Aaron and Dave Parker, also attended the event.

Obviously, any discussion involving civil rights extends beyond baseball, and beyond the sports realm, and really beyond African-American community.

But baseball provided the platform for this discussion, and some might say baseball helped start it in the first place.

"I felt like if I could set an example, if I could educate people with the same kind of education I received from guys like Joe Morgan and Hank Aaron, we could pass on the legacy, pass on the traditions."
-- Barry Larkin

While baseball might have taken the lead with Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, it still took players being role models, passing along the legacy, showing responsibility for the coming generations of players to maintain the momentum. And while change was happening in schools and government, and on buses and lunch counters, Morgan came to find out early in his career that the job wasn't complete.

When he first arrived as a professional player, coming from Oakland where integration was established and race didn't come into play on the field, Morgan was introduced to the type of racism Aaron and Robinson and others before him had endured. He did get some prejudice of the organization wanting him to switch from second base to outfield, which he refused, but really the barrier he saw that touched him most was outside the lines of the field.

Going to his first road game in the Minors, he saw just how segregated the South was at that time.

"We were walking out to the field, and I looked in right field and all the African-Americans were behind a screen of chicken wire out there," Morgan recalled. "I was taking batting practice, and I made up my mind right there that I was going to go home. I said I'm not going to be a part of this. I can't condone this and be out there playing with that going on.

"I'd made up my mind and made reservations to go home. But I decided to stand, and I was able to do it only because of my memories of Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson and all those who came before me."

Larkin is among those who were the better for the fact that Morgan did stick with it. Larkin, who along with Morgan provided the hometown double-play combination on the panel as former Reds stars, said his approach toward that role was a natural fit.

"I felt like if I could set an example, if I could educate people with the same kind of education I received from guys like Joe Morgan and Hank Aaron, we could pass on the legacy, pass on the traditions," Larkin said.

That philosophy was as plain as the inscriptions Larkin received from his two favorite players -- Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, and Big Red Machine shortstop Davey Concepcion -- on baseball gloves he had them sign at the end of their careers.

"I don't think they were working in cahoots, but they both signed it to me and said ... 'Continue the legacy. Pass on the tradition,'" said Larkin, now an analyst for the MLB Network. "Both of them wrote that. So I felt for me as a baseball player, I was doing that same exact thing. I thought it was my responsibility to continue the legacy and pass on the tradition."

Or, in the case of Lewis, help to start one. One of five black head coaches in the NFL, Lewis takes on the hopes of being the next mentor, repaying what others did for him.

"These people endured a lot to help me get this opportunity today," Lewis said. "That's the thing for myself and the other African-American head coaches in the NFL now, we'd like to establish our own legacy."

Williams overcame more obstacles than just the color of his skin. Born with a severe hearing disability that wasn't discovered until he was in the third grade, Williams went on to graduate from Dartmouth College, star for 14 years for the Bengals and serve as a Cincinnati city council member for the last two years of his playing days.

All it took was an opportunity.

"One of the hopes of civil rights is for every person in America, the greatest country on the planet, to have a level playing field, an opportunity for all kids," Williams said.

Opportunity becomes responsibility.

And for panelist Jones -- once the highest-ranking African American female enlisted in any branch of the U.S. military, and now serving as Special Assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense -- the concept of carrying on a legacy and becoming a role model ... fit like a glove, just like it did for Larkin and the rest.

She entered the military in 1982, just four years after women became eligible to serve alongside men, and she turned it into 25 years of distinguished service.

"The door was open for me, and I decided to take it off its hinges so other people could come in behind me," Jones said.

Garrison, meanwhile, was a rare African-American in the tennis world, and she received support from Morgan and others like entertainer Bill Cosby and NBA star Moses Malone as she grew up in Houston and became a young tennis star.

From there, it was up to her to accept her responsibility, she said.

"I was there to break the barriers I was supposed to break, and Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe were there to break the barriers they broke," Garrison said.

Now that Venus and Serena Williams have been on top of the women's tennis world for a decade, Garrison's legacy hasn't faded.

"I'm very aware that everyone sits on someone else's shoulders, and that was my time," Garrison said.

Just that type of legacy continues for each of the panelists on Friday's roundtable.

Actually, on certain levels, it continues for everyone.

"I really believe every adult should be a role model, not just those on TV or those of us on this panel," Morgan said to instant applause from the audience.

That said, the six panelists who brought a human element to the start of this year's Civil Rights Game weekend embrace the opportunity to discuss civil rights, where they've been and where they're going.

Being a role model, carrying the legacy, taking the responsibility is the ultimate way to express appreciation for those who came before.

After all, not talking about it, not discussing it, not remembering is not an alternative.

"Any time we ignore race, it doesn't help us," Morgan said. "If you do that, you do a disservice, not only to people now but to the people who came before us."

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.