05/15/11 1:46 AM ET
MLB honors Banks, Freeman, Santana
Beacon Award winners lauded for contributions to civil rights
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
That was the scene at the VIP Room of the Omni Hotel on Saturday night, the prelude to the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Banquet that brought together iconic individuals from all walks of life for several reasons.
They were here to commemorate the three Beacon Award winners -- Banks, Freeman and Santana. They were here to celebrate Civil Rights Game weekend.
They were also here to honor Henry Louis "Hank" Aaron -- the Hall of Fame outfielder who's one of the key figures in a city that's providing the venue for the fifth annual Delta Civil Rights Game.
"That's one of the reasons we're here in Atlanta is because of Henry," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig told MLB.com. "That's maybe the most important reason."
Aaron's wife, Billye, served as emcee to the star-studded Banquet, which was presented by Belk and featured riveting speeches from Selig, Robinson, former National League Rookie of the Year Earl Williams, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rev. Dr. Aaron Parker, the three Beacon Award winners and their presenters, MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon, and an awe-inspiring Rev. Joseph Lowery.
Their messages had a common theme.
"While [the world] is much improved in the 64 years since Jackie [Robinson broke the color barrier], we all know that there is much work still to be done," Selig said in his keynote address, "which is why we are here today, to remember and to honor, and to pay tribute to all those who have devoted themselves and their lives to the Civil Rights Movement."
It was Aaron who pushed MLB to move the Civil Rights Game to Atlanta after two years in Memphis and two years in Cincinnati. He felt the city's proud civil rights history offered the perfect fit.
After Selig, Williams stepped up to the podium and listed the reasons why everyone should "follow Hank." Then, Robinson jokingly moaned about how he found himself following Hank en route to Cooperstown.
"He doesn't know how much I was driven by his performance on the field," Robinson said during his speech. "When we played the Braves, if he hit one [homer], I wanted to hit one. If he hit two, I wanted to hit two. If he hit three ... I told him to go ahead. He had a tremendous career, and I was always chasing him; always chasing him. And one thing I always admired and respected was the way he carried himself and conducted himself on the field."
Banks, Santana and Freeman were presented their Beacon Awards -- awards they will be showing off at Turner Field prior to Sunday's Civil Rights Game -- because they used their celebrity as a platform to give back.
Banks, who was presented his award by Rev. Jesse Jackson, is the most iconic Cubs player ever, but he also runs the Ernie Banks Live Above and Beyond Foundation. The organization helps improve the capabilities of underprivileged children and seniors.
For that he was given the Beacon of Life, awarded to someone who "embodies the soul of the Civil Rights Movement through his life's pursuits," according to a recent MLB release.
"When I first found out about it, it was a real shock, because everybody was talking about it, doing a lot of interviews about it and press releases. I said, 'What is the big deal with this? I haven't done anything,'" Banks recalled. "It came to me as I got closer to coming here, and meeting all the people who was here - Carlos Santana and Morgan Freeman. It's just a great honor to receive this award."
After being introduced by entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, Santana took the mic to accept the Beacon of Change, which is given to a person who "impacts society through words and actions."
On top of winning 10 Grammy Awards, selling more than 90 million records and being enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Santana runs The Milagro Foundation, which benefits underserved and vulnerable children around the world.
"It's supremely important, because that's what I learned in the '60s," Santana said about giving back. "I listened to B.B. King and Tito Puente and Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez and Mother Teresa, so it all became just one. The Beatles, 'All You Need Is Love.' We're still here from the '60s. We're hippies, man."
Freeman, who was introduced by the first African-American pitcher to start a World Series game, Don Newcombe, spoke about how he never thought he did enough outside of his success as an actor, until he was reminded in the video montage that played just before he took the stage.
Freeman's films -- "The Shawshank Redemption," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Million Dollar Baby" and many others -- have made him an Academy Award winner and one of the top-grossing actors of all-time.
But Freeman's most impactful contribution may have come away from the studio. In 2008, he got the local high school from one of his hometowns in Charleston, Miss., to stage an integrated prom for the first time. For that, he was given the Beacon of Hope as someone who "influences our future through his support of children."
"'Hope' is like a dream," Freeman said. "No dream, no life. You always have to have hope. You want to have it, you want to give it, you want to offer it."
The Banquet, attended by several members of the Phillies and Braves, closed with an emotional speech from Solomon.
Solomon looked back on how far the nation has come since Dr. King's death, but also how far it needs to go with regards to social and educational matters. But first, he thanked his boss.
"None of this will have ever taken place without the vision of Commissioner Selig," Solomon said. "By supporting this event, it shows that our industry is not merely about generating revenues, but also about creating a peaceful society that provides equal opportunities for each and every one of us."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.