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Diverse panel enlivens Civil Rights roundtable

ATLANTA -- At Friday's leadoff event for the fifth annual Civil Rights Game -- "Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement: A Roundtable Discussion" -- panelists noted how far this nation has come in the way of social equality, but also looked forward to how much is left.

In doing so, the event signaled the start of the Civil Rights Game festivities in a new venue -- one John Schuerholz believes will not disappoint.

"[Atlanta] is the birthplace of the civil rights movement, and we're a Major League Baseball organization, and no better place has that combination than we do," the Braves' president said just before delivering the keynote speech. "There's no city in all of Major League Baseball that represents both Major League Baseball combined with civil rights than Atlanta."

So, perhaps it was fitting that in the downtown portion of that city -- at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, close to where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his ministry of nonviolence, helping spawn a generation of believers in racial equality and social change -- a discussion on current hard-hitting social issues took place.

About two miles from Turner Field, where the fifth annual Civil Rights Game will take place between the Phillies and Braves on Sunday, Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree served as moderator for a diverse panel.

In it were singer Gloria Gaynor, activist Dolores Huerta, Major League Baseball vice president of youth and facility development Darrell Miller, Angels owner Arte Moreno, National Urban League executive director Marc Morial and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts.

The discussion will be streamed in its entirety on at noon ET on Sunday.

"The entire panel did a great job," said MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon, leading Commissioner Bud Selig's efforts to celebrate social change via the Civil Rights Game.

"Their backgrounds, as diverse as they were, created an opportunity for us to look at some very tough issues in a very, very new fashion."

Solomon sat in the front row, with Hall of Famer and Braves legend Hank Aaron to his left, as the panelists discussed the need for an improved educational system, the discrimination that still exists today and the way baseball is looking to promote diversity.

Moreno, who became the first Hispanic to own a major sports team in the U.S. when he purchased the Angels in 2003, talked about the importance of opening up the game to the fans -- something he did with his hands-on approach upon assuming ownership.

"It's so important for us in the baseball business to focus on our fans," Moreno said later, "and we continue to give people opportunities and continue to educate and take care of our young people."

Huerta, critical in helping to improve the lives of workers, immigrants and women, spoke forcefully about influencing the youth.

"I think we have to get the young people more involved," said Huerta, who finished by uttering the words "sí se puede" -- the Spanish translation of President Barack Obama's rallying cry, "Yes we can."

Morial, the son of the first African-American mayor in New Orleans who then became mayor himself in 1994, touched on several issues -- such as the recently passed, highly controversial Georgia bill on anti-illegal immigration and the need for better education.

"The truth of the matter is that in comparison to other nations, industrialized nations, the United States of America has slipped [with regards to education] in the last 10, 15, 20 years," Morial said. " ... We've got to think of that as being unacceptable, and we have to see that as the real weapon of mass destruction."

Gaynor, most famous for recording the iconic disco song "I Will Survive" in 1978, spoke about how there's still an "underground prejudice," which is "the most difficult to fight."

Roberts, who has served in the U.S., Germany and Iraq, noted how 70 percent of those ages 17-24 who want to serve in the U.S. Army can't because of educational, criminal or health issues.

And Miller, the former Angels catcher and outfielder who helps run MLB's Urban Youth Academies, recalled a big obstacle he once faced.

It was while in middle school. Miller had a significant stutter, which became a big obstacle while preparing to deliver a speech as the valedictorian of his class. But he had a teacher who helped him through it, and as he thought of her, he choked up and couldn't finish his sentence -- because of the emotions running through him, and the applause that surrounded the church.

Miller, along with all those helping him make up Friday's panel, are hoping to have the same kind of influence on today's youth.

"I think a lot of our kids feel like there's no hope," said Miller, the brother of basketball stars Reggie and Cheryl Miller. " ... They don't understand that the opportunities are there for them; they don't understand that this is their world."

Civil Rights Game activities will continue on Saturday with a morning Youth Summit, a Phillies-Braves game that will feature both teams sporting their respective cities' Negro Leagues uniforms and will be followed by a postgame concert from Ludacris, and the MLB Beacon Awards Banquet later that night -- which Selig is expected to attend.