ATLANTA -- Life is different now than it was a half-century ago, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy preached to their congregations in Atlanta, fought for civil rights in the segregated South and hoped to gain the progress that was realized in 1947, when Jackie Robinson became Major League Baseball's first African-American player.
Robinson's fight continued once he broke baseball's color barrier and was subjected to racial insults from fans, opponents and teammates. When Hank Aaron made his Major League debut in 1954, African-American players still faced segregation and cruelties that were foreign to their Caucasian teammates.
When the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, Andrew Young, another great civil rights leader, remembers seeing some of the "good ol' boys" in Atlanta begin to change their attitude, accepting the understanding that they had to openly welcome Aaron and other African-Americans if they truly wanted to serve as a Major League city.
When MLB brings the Delta Civil Rights Game to Atlanta this weekend, Young and Aaron will be among those who will tell similar stories from the past and urge the youth of today to understand the need to take advantage of what pioneers like King, Abernathy and Robinson fought for during an unjust period.
"It's about giving thanks to all those who have given us a chance to be where we are today," said Braves right fielder Jason Heyward, who grew up in suburban Atlanta. "It's also about teaching those who don't know. This is a chance for myself, [Phillies first baseman] Ryan [Howard] and [Phillies shortstop] Jimmy [Rollins] to show we're here to keep that going."
When the Braves and Phillies play in the Civil Rights Game on Sunday afternoon at 1:35 p.m. ET, the teams will be wearing throwback uniforms from 1974, when Aaron broke Babe Ruth's career home run record by hitting his 715th on April 8. Of course, the Civil Rights Game stands as just one of the many events being staged in Atlanta this weekend.
"We are looking forward to the Civil Rights Game and embrace everything that this event offers," Braves executive vice president of sales and marketing Derek Schiller said. "We have been encouraged by the way our community has reacted to this event and will make every attempt to make it memorable for them."
MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon has been encouraged by the support this event has gained once the Atlanta community started to learn the links between baseball and the civil rights movement.
"Once the story was starting to be told, once we started to get it out, I think that the city has started to embrace it, and embrace it in a big way," Solomon said. "I think that you'll be very pleasantly surprised when you see the crowds come out to the Saturday and Sunday games. In fact, the estimates right now are well in excess of 40,000 fans for [Saturday's and Sunday's] games. And the demographics of those stands, I think, will be unlike what we're used to seeing throughout Major League Baseball, but especially in Atlanta."
Along with Sunday afternoon's Civil Rights Game, this year's event included Friday's roundtable discussion about baseball and civil rights, and will include a clinic that will introduce children to some Major League players and the MLB Beacon Awards, which celebrate the achievements of individuals whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the civil rights movement.
At the conclusion of Saturday afternoon's game against the Phillies, award-winning rapper Ludacris will provide a concert at Turner Field. His presence may help generate interest from some young African-Americans who may not have a strong understanding about what baseball can offer.
"All we can do is give them every reason to come to the ballpark," said Heyward, who is recognized as a figure who could influence Atlanta's African-American community to show a greater interest in baseball.
This year's events will begin Friday at 3 p.m. with the roundtable discussion at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree will moderate this event, which will feature singer Gloria Gaynor, activist Dolores Huerta, Angels principal owner Arte Moreno and National Urban League executive director Marc Morial.
The Youth Summit presented by Army will begin Saturday at 9 a.m. ET at Centennial Park. Kids will be able to interact with Major League players and local celebrities. The free event will include clinics, interactive stations, a Q&A session and a parade to Turner Field.
This year's Beacon Awards presentation will be held on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Omni Hotel Grand Ballroom. This year's winners include actor Morgan Freeman (Beacon of Hope), musician Carlos Santana (Beacon of Change) and Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks (Beacon of Life).
During this year's ceremonies, Rev. Al Sharpton will introduce five "Freedom Riders," civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States to test the United States Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia. A special tribute to Aaron will also be made at this event.
"All of those guys are legends and icons in their own special way," Braves pitcher Jair Jurrjens said. "It's always a pleasure to meet legends like that."