ATLANTA -- For Americans of a certain age, still blessed with a pulse and a memory, the words Ebenezer Baptist Church evoke a different time, a time of struggle, but eminently worthwhile struggle.
That time is long past, but the struggle continues. That was part of the message Friday, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the newer one, across Auburn Avenue from the old church, which was the spiritual home ground of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The setting was the leadoff event for the fifth annual Civil Rights Game, "Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement: A Roundtable Discussion." In fact, there was precious little discussion of baseball per se. The one person on the six-member panel, who is currently active in the game, was Arte Moreno, owner of the Angels.
Moreno is the first Hispanic to own a Major League-level sports team, but he is very much the anti-Steinbrenner model of an owner. His work in building the Angels franchise has been nothing less than a smashing success. Remember when the Dodgers dominated the SoCal baseball landscape? Oh, what a change. But Moreno is a self-effacing sort, not at all given to controversial pronouncements.
So the topics at hand were primarily political, educational, sociological. A theme that emerged was that as much progress as America has made in the area of racial relations, there is still much further to go in the journey that was begun by King and the pioneers of the civil rights movement. This is a contention that is beyond dispute, but it is always worth making.
ln the audience at Ebenezer Baptist Church were two of baseball's own pioneers, Ernie Banks and Henry Aaron. Both will be honored at the Saturday night Beacon Awards dinner. Banks will receive the "Beacon of Life" award, which recognizes "an individual who embodies the soul of the civil rights movement through his life's pursuits." Mr. Cub is all that, body and soul.
Aaron has previously received his own Beacon Award. He is being honored basically because he is Henry Aaron, and Atlanta is his adopted hometown. Again, this is a development well beyond the reach of debate.
Aaron cannot be honored widely enough or often enough. He and Banks came to organized baseball when Jim Crow still ruled in the South. They had difficult roads to travel, but they persevered to become legends of the game, Hall of Famers. Aaron had still more travails when he closed in on Babe Ruth's career home run record and received not only piles of racist hate mail but also death threats. Both Banks and Aaron embody baseball's portion of the civil rights struggle. They are national treasures, not only for what they accomplished but who they were and still are.
To get a sense of that earlier time again, you only had to glance at them, or before the discussion began, listen to the Ebenezer Baptist Church Ensemble. The ensemble's stirring renditions of the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome," and "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," just to name two, retained every bit of the original passion and purpose.
So the setting was more than appropriate and genuinely evocative, and the majority of the panelists represented some of the healthiest avenues of American social activism. The possible exception was a U.S. Army brigadier general whose words on the Army's recruitment struggles didn't quite seem to fit. But as a First Amendment issue, sure, let all sides be heard.
On the side closer to King, there was Dolores Huerta, a longtime activist, who co-founded the United Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez. She made perfect, concise sense, every time she spoke. At the core of the nation's problems, the panelists agreed, was an educational system that was failing the youth of America. "Charter schools are not the answer," Huerta said. "Destroying the public school system is not the answer." Well said.
And setting the tone introducing the discussion, John Schuerholz, president of the Atlanta Braves, invoked the late Buck O'Neil, a close friend from his days in Kansas City. O'Neil, of course, had become the face of Negro Leagues history for all of America. Schuerholz said that O'Neil told him Americans should celebrate what holds us together, not what separates us.
That, at the end of the afternoon, is what this event at Ebenezer Baptist Church meant. It is a message always worth remembering.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.