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I have been honored by an invitation to appear in Cincinnati this Friday afternoon June 19 on a Civil Rights Roundtable chaired by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, Jr. (President Obama’s law school mentor). The opening event of Major League Baseball’s first Civil Rights Weekend, our panel begins at 4 PM and will take place at the National Underground Railroad Museum located a few blocks from the Cincinnati Reds home field, The Great American Ballpark. The Reds will open later that night a three-game inter-league series with the White Sox. The Friday panel discussion will be taped and broadcast Sunday night on MLB’s cable network.

The Reds-White Sox Saturday night June 20th encounter has been designated by MLB as the Civil Rights Game and will be televised by the MLB network. Earlier on Saturday former President Bill Clinton will address a Beacons Award luncheon hosted by cable television’s Soledad O’Brien that will honor Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby and Muhammad Ali.

One of the members of my Friday panel will be basketball Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, the University of Cincinnati and Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks star in the National Basketball Association, a player who veritably was Magic Johnson before there was Magic Johnson. As president of the National Basketball Players Association Robertson lent his name to the federal anti-trust lawsuit in 1970 that delayed until 1976 the merger of the American Basketball Association with the NBA until a collective bargaining agreement more favorable to the players could be established.

In one of the fascinating connections in modern history, Robert L. Carter, the federal judge who oversaw the labor agreement and the merger, was the African-American lawyer who prepared the brief for the NAACP that led to the unanimous May 1954 SCOTUS decision in the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case that ruled school desegregation unconstitutional. There is always a gap between judicial edict and social practice in a democracy as Oscar Robertson can surely attest. In 1955, one year after the Brown decision, Robertson led Indianapolis Crispus Attacks High School to the Indiana state basketball title, the first time a black high school won that honor. However, the team was denied the traditional parade because the city fathers feared racial incidents. In another measure of that uneasy time in the 1950s, Robertson and future baseball Hall of Famer Bob Gibson both applied to the University of Indiana but were told that the racial quotas had already been filled.

For the past two seasons the Civil Rights Game was a pre-season exhibition played in Memphis not far from the motel where Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968 and now is the home for a King museum. For the next two years (at least) the Reds and MLB have made a commitment to host regular season games in commemoration of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s showing that baseball commissioner Bud Selig and his administration are serious about baseball’s commitment to diversity.

Selig has stated many times that he considers Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson and Robinson’s triumph constituted baseball’s finest moment. In the introduction to the new edition of my biography of Baseball’s Ferocious Gentleman, I quote the inscription that Dr. King wrote in his autographed copy of “Stride Towards Freedom,” his book about the successful Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott: “To Branch Rickey - in appreciation for your genuine goodwill, your unswerving devotion to the ideals of freedom and justice, and your courageous willingness to make American sports truly American.”

It seems especially fitting for me to discuss Rickey’s vision and achievement in Cincinnati because he grew up in southern Ohio near Portsmouth and was a Reds fan in his youth. His first appearance in a major league clubhouse was with the Reds who purchased his contract from the minor leagues in August 1904. However, he never played for them because he left the team to observe the Sabbath with his parents and the Reds crusty profane manager Joe Kelley, once a member of the legendary brawling Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s, wanted no part of him. More than 61 years later when Rickey’s body was lying in a Portsmouth funeral home prior to burial, the touring Harlem Globetrotters basketball team made an unannounced 100-mile trip from Cincinnati to Portsmouth to pay their respects to the man who first integrated baseball and opened up untapped opportunities for athletes in other sports as well as Americans of color in all walks of life.

More on the Civil Rights weekend after I return from my adventure. Ciao for now!
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