By Maria Saporta
Another great Atlanta tradition is born.
The Atlanta Braves on Friday launched the beginning of the team’s first-ever Heritage Weekend (May 31 to June 2) as a way to pay tribute to its home city’s Civil Rights legacy.
And the opening luncheon did not disappoint with the presence of legends who broke racial barriers in the world of sports and society in general.
In 2011 and 2012, the Atlanta Braves hosted the Civil Rights Game. But this year, Braves decided to expand the idea into an annual Heritage Weekend and to pay tribute to the team’s own icon — Hank Aaron — with the Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Award.
The luncheon on Friday was co-hosted by the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, which currently is under construction and is scheduled to open on Memorial Day weekend a year from now.
The luncheon had a wide array of honored guests — an Olympic Gold medalist, a Tuskegee airman, an NBA Hall of Famer, two former Atlanta mayors, a former Atlanta Brave and the grand-daughter of an owner of the Negro Baseball League, to name a few.
Former Fulton County Commissioner Nancy Boxill spoke about her grand-father — Cumberland W. Posey Jr. — owner of the Homestead Grays, which she described as the “winningest team in the Negro National League.” Her grandfather was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
But the real hero of the day was the man himself — Hank Aaron, who proudly sat at one of the head tables in the 755 Club (named for the number of homeruns he hit in his career) at Turner Field.
Former Atlanta Braves Brian Jordan told the audience how his mother encouraged him to read about the history of sports. “Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron helped me get through some tough times in my career,” Jordan said. And then he went on to share an experience that he had always kept private until Friday.
One night in 1992, a couple of weeks after the Rodney King riots, Jordan and one of his teammates with the St. Louis Cardinals were pulled over when they were driving back from a charity event for no apparent reason. His teammate’s car had California plates and tinted windows, and the officer never explained why they had been stopped.
Jordan, who had taken some criminal justice courses and knew to keep calm, told his teammate that he would handle the situation.
As politely as he could, he asked the officer what they had done wrong. The officer told him to get out of the car. The next thing he knew, Jordan was under arrest, in the back of a police car and being driven to the station. He put his head down so no one would recognize him.
“I was full of rage, full of anger,” Jordan said. But then he thought about the books he had read of Robinson and Aaron and all the obstacles that they had endured during the painful days of segregation. “What got me through it was thinking about Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron.”
Tommie Smith, who won an Olympic Gold Medal for track and field in Mexico City in 1968, is probably best remembered for when he and fellow medalist John Carlos each put their fist in the air — the Black Power salute — when they were on the medal stand — a controversial action at the time.
But on Friday, Smith explained that it was really a cry for freedom and equality — a cry for the United States to live up to the ideals in its own Constitution.
When Val Archer became a Tuskegee Airman and joined the Armed Services, it was 1945 and the military was still segregated. Archer said he easily could have become a gangster, a kid on the street because he didn’t believe he could escape his environment.
But he became aware of Malvin “Mal” Greston Whitfield, who joined the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1943 and became a Tuskegee Airman. Whitfield went on to win the Olympic Gold at the 1948 London Olympic in track and field. By the way, Whitfield is the father of CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield. Getting to know “Mal” changed Archer’s life.
Bernard King, a native of Brooklyn who now lives in Atlanta, played much of his professional basketball career with the New York Knicks, was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2013.
His parents and Sidney Poitier were his role models.
“My father was a janitor, and when he got home from work, he would go to church seven nights a week,” King said. “I wanted to be like Sidney Poitier. I wanted to talk like him. I wanted to walk like him.”
Instead, King became a basketball star. Later in life, when he had gone into business, he was approached by Bruce Ratner and the Brooklyn Nets to see if he could help them with the community. King did his homework and heard from the community that they needed jobs. He was able to get commitments from the team to train and hire people from the community.
That said, King warned the crowd: “We are losing our youth.” When he went to visit his elementary school, he did not see students who were serious about getting an education, and he expressed concern that 50 percent of them would not graduate from school.
After the panel discussion, it was time to award the two Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Awards.
The first went to Sen. Leroy Johnson, the first African American senator elected in Georgia since Reconstruction who had been a pioneer in Civil Rights and the legal profession. He helped make the legal case that permitted Muhammad Ali to fight in Atlanta’s Municipal Auditorium in 1970.
After thanking God for “allowing me to be here on earth for 84 years” and for being married to his wife for nearly 65 years, Johnson said he had joined forces with Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. in the 1960s to try to get the Milwaukee Braves to move to Atlanta.
Looking over to Hank Aaron, Johnson reminded the baseball great of a letter he had written him at the time: “Come South young man, come South. No matter what they have said about the South, we welcome you.”
The second recipient of the Champion for Justice Award was former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, who also had his own story about Mayor Allen.
“Ivan Allen mentored me,” Young said, adding that the mayor had even gotten him out of jail.
Young also remembered the sentiment among Atlanta leaders when they were trying to attract the Braves.
“If we are going to have a big league team, we have to be a big league town,” Young said. That meant that Hank Aaron should be able to live in any community he wanted to.
Fortunately, Young said that Aaron moved to southwest Atlanta — quite close to where Young’s home. “We’ve been friends and neighbors every since.”
Young also recognized one of his successors, who was in attendance — former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, currently chair of the National Center of Civil and Human Rights. It was Young who had encouraged Franklin to work on the Civil Rights attraction during her administration.
Doug Shipman, president and CEO of the Center, thanked the Atlanta Braves for giving new life to what had been the Civil Rights Game by turning it into the three-day Heritage Weekend.
“Sometimes when you live in Atlanta it’s easy to take our institutions for granted,” Shipman said. “For two years, the Atlanta Braves hosted the Civil Rights Game. They also have donated $100,000 to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.”
The event on Friday was “the culmination” of their growing partnership. “We don’t take it for granted,” Shipman said. “Thank you Atlanta Braves.”