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Beacon Awards go to Banks, Freeman, Santana

A new venue is set for the fifth annual Civil Rights Game, and now a fresh slate of honorees is, too.

Major League Baseball named Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, actor Morgan Freeman and musician Carlos Santana as the 2011 Beacon Award winners on Wednesday. The three will be honored in Atlanta prior to the May 15 Civil Rights Game between the Phillies and Braves at Turner Field.

In previous years, the likes of Buck O'Neil, Spike Lee, Frank Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby and Willie Mays have been presented with Beacon Awards.

The Beacon Awards, according to Major League Baseball, "recognize individuals whose lives have been emblematic of the spirit of the civil rights movement."

Banks, Freeman and Santana will receive the Beacon of Hope, Beacon of Change and Beacon of Life awards, respectively, on May 14 at the Omni Hotel.

"We are very pleased to have the opportunity to honor this esteemed group with MLB Beacon Awards," MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon said. "The impact each individual has made in their professional careers is admirable, but it is their personal pursuits of philanthropy, equal rights and integration that make them truly deserving of this significant recognition of accomplishment."

Beacon Award winners
Year Life Change Hope
2007 Buck O'Neil Spike Lee Vera Clemente
2008 Frank Robinson Ruby Dee John H. Johnson
2009 Hank Aaron Muhammad Ali Bill Cosby
2010 Willie Mays Billie Jean King Harry Belafonte
2011 Ernie Banks Carlos Santana Morgan Freeman
Nicknamed "Mr. Cub," Banks was one of the best power-hitting shortstops in baseball history, amassing 512 homers, 2,583 hits and two MVP awards in his Hall of Fame career, which spanned from 1953-71. The 14-time All-Star -- who moved to first base midway through his career -- owns the Cubs record for most games played (2,528) and was the first member of the organization to have his number (14) retired.

The Beacon of Life recognizes "an individual who embodies the soul of the civil rights movement through his life's pursuits," according to MLB. The 80-year-old Banks and his wife, Liz, operate the "Ernie Banks Live Above and Beyond Foundation," which promotes social welfare and looks to improve the lives of underprivileged children and senior citizens by enhancing neighborhoods and relieving discrimination among age groups and races.

Freeman, an Academy Award winner whose films have earned more than $3 billion in cumulative ticket sales, has acted in some of the most popular box-office hits ever, including recently playing the role of Nelson Mandela in the 2009 film "Invictus."

Off the set, he co-founded the Frank Silvera Writers' Workshop, which seeks to serve successful playwrights of the new millennium, in 1973; is a board member of Earth Biofuels, a company whose mission is to promote the use of clean-burning fuels; and supports Artists for a New South Africa and the Campaign for Female Education. In 2008, Freeman famously funded the first racially integrated prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi. Three years later, he's being honored with the Beacon of Hope because he "influences our future through his support of children."

Santana has sold more than 90 million records and won 10 Grammy Awards. He was named the 15th greatest guitarist of all-time by Rolling Stone magazine. He and The Rolling Stones are the only musical acts in chart history to score at least one Top 10 album in every decade beginning in the 1960s.

The Beacon of Change is given to individuals who "impact society through words and actions." In 1998, Santana established the Milagro Foundation, which benefits underserved children around the world by giving grants to community-based, tax-exempt organizations that work with youngsters in the areas of education, health and the arts. Since it began, the foundation has supported children in 36 states and 35 countries by granting more than $4.7 million.

Leading into the Civil Rights Game -- to be played on a Sunday for the first time -- MLB will bring back the Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion, as well as the Youth Summit/"Wanna Play?" event for kids. Added to the fold are the two-day Selig Business Conference and a red-carpet screening for the Aaron documentary entitled "Chasing the Dream."

Rev. Joseph Lowery, a former leader of the civil rights movement and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will deliver the keynote speech at the Beacon Awards banquet. Proceeds will benefit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation in Washington, D.C.

More information on the Civil Rights Game, including the opportunity to purchase tickets, can be found at

Ernie Banks