What a beautiful day in Birmingham. Blue skies and a high of 80 degrees. A "cool" summer day in the South for sure. I visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, strolled through Kelly Ingram Park, and took pictures outside the 16th Street Baptist Church. Together they represent a poignant tribute to one of the greatest victories of the CRM...as well as one of the greatest tragedies. While almost all Americans are familiar with the church bombing that killed 4 young girls attending church services, most have no idea (me included) that two young boys were also killed on the same day. 13 year-old Virgil Ware was killed by white teenagers who were returning from a segregationist rally held after the bombing. 16 year-old Jimmy Robinson was killed by Birmingham Police after (reportedly) hurling rocks at a police cruiser. I was shocked and appalled that this happened (and I knew nothing about it).
While I could write page after page honoring the brave citizens of Birmingham (especially the children) for standing up to the ruthless, segregationist police led by tank-riding police commissioner Bull Conner, I've decided to write about something different: Baseball. I arrived at this decision because I had the good fortune of visiting the oldest baseball stadium in the USA, Rickwood Park. Opened in 1910, and used regularly until 1987 by the Birmingham Barons (and the Black Barons of the Negro National League before the Negro Leagues folded in the early 1960s), it has been maintained by a dedicated group of citizens since. American Legion and Adult leagues use the field regularly and anyone can visit free of charge. Its worth your time even if you hate baseball...just an amazing historical relic.
On to the reason I've decided to write about baseball. When both the Barons and Black Barons were playing and segregation was strictly enforced, the teams shared the stadium in an interesting fashion. While the Barons played, African-Americans could only sit in the right field bleachers and when the Black Barons played, Whites could only sit in the right field bleachers. Interesting set-up to say the least. The Black Barons were so popular, that the city passed a temporary ordinance one year to allow the team to play an all-white team from the Texas League. Baseball was the ONLY instance were city leaders would change its strict segregation policy. Herein lies the important relationship between sports and the Civil Rights Movement. It can be argued that Jackie Robinson (who actually played at Rickwood Park in the minor leagues) was the most important person in the CRM. Ironically, I just started reading Roger Kahn's October Men (got it free at Country Inn & Suites) where he essentially makes the same point, saying "I think it is reasonable to suggest that without Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have lived out his days delivering eloquent sermons in an obscure Baptist church in Georgia." As someone who loves sports, I'm obviously biased when it comes to discussing the social impact of sports. BUT, could you imagine an equally successful CRM without Jackie Robinson, all-black Texas Western defeating all-white Kentucky, Muhammad Ali, or "fists of freedom" at the 1968 Olympics? Sports became the place not only where racial injustice was publicized, but, also, the place where racial relations improved.
An interesting side story is how African-Americans were judged (and still are) by their stance on civil rights issue. Willie Mays, who grew up close to Birmingham and was a 16 year-old star on the Black Barons' 1948 championship team, was chastised for not participating in the CRM. So was Hank Aaron who also grew up in Alabama. Do sports stars (and other public figures) have an obligation to speak out on social issues? Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, among others, have faced criticism for not being more socially active while Muhammad Ali and Charles Barkley have been criticised for being too opinionated. Just some food for thought..Sorry for the tangent.
Its on to Atlanta tomorrow and my final stop on this glorious journey. It has been a wonderful experience every step of the way. I'd be lying if I said I was looking forward to visiting Dr. King's final resting place. Its a beautiful memorial to a special man, but, along with JFK and RFK, I'd like to think that the world would be better today if their lives weren't tragically taken far too soon.