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Monarchs get sobering taste of history in Birmingham

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- There is one element that has definitely not been lost among the Anderson Monarchs as they make their way through the Deep South during this particular leg of their civil rights barnstorming tour: The road to equal rights and a better life was often a difficult one, filled with pain, anguish and, sometimes, death.

It's one thing to watch a movie or learn about civil rights in a classroom. It's quite another to see these events spring to life, as they did on Wednesday when the Monarchs visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

This wasn't just a quick visit. This was an emotional history lesson about exactly what happened on Sept. 15, 1963, when four teenage girls were killed and 22 churchgoers injured in the famous church bombing.

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The kids sat quietly on the church benches inside the sanctuary as Lisa McNair -- the sister of Denise McNair, one of the four girls killed -- talked about that terrible day.

"You're going to see a lot of things and learn a lot of stuff today and meet a lot of people," McNair said. "But I want you to think about the fact that they were 14 when they left this earth."

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Considering that's the age of most of the Anderson Monarchs, this conversation left quite an impression.

"It was good but horrifying to see the four little girls who died in the church," said Monarchs player Tamir Brooks. "Because they died in a place where you think that you'd be safe. But they weren't."

Lisa McNair, who was born after her sister was killed in the bombing, encouraged the kids to make the most of every moment and to live their lives with a purpose, and not waste time on things that don't matter.

"What if you knew today you had only until the age you are now -- what are you going to do?" McNair asked the kids. The four girls "left a great legacy of their lives and who they were and what they did, and they didn't know they had a short amount of time.

"Be the best human being you can. Leave all the silly, petty bullying, and not being nice and remember those types of actions caused the death of those girls who were just trying to live."

After touring the church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Monarchs, who spent the afternoon with kids from the Willie Mays RBI team, walked across the street to look around Kelly Ingram Park, the site of many peaceful protests that became violent when African-Americans were turned back by police with fire hoses and dogs.

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Today, the park is a sprawling tribute to the suffering and sacrifice made by generations before to pave the way for a better life in the future.

"We've come far," Brooks said. "Standing right here, there's statues right there and you see where the hoses were on the children and the dogs were."

The fact that the kids are receiving such a thorough historical education at such a young age isn't lost among the group's members.

"It's special," Brooks said. "I get to learn about my people. The people who fought for me to get where I am."

In that respect, Wednesday was a day of reflection, but it also encompassed a warm circle of camaraderie. After spending the day together, the two teams -- the Monarchs and Willie Mays RBI -- headed to Rickwood Field, the oldest ballpark in the country, to play a seven-inning game.

Spearheaded by former Major League player and coach Ron "Papa Jack" Jackson, who runs the Willie Mays RBI and organized the event, the game was a history lesson in itself.

The players wore Negro League uniforms, and many players from the Negro Leagues were on hand to greet the teams during pregame introductions. That included 90-year-old Rev. Williams H. Greason, one of the first black players to play for the St. Louis Cardinals and a teammate of Willie Mays on the 1948 Birmingham Black Barons team that went to the Negro League World Series.

Asked about being a pioneer, Greason answered humbly.

"We just wanted to play baseball," he said. "I didn't set out to be the first signed by the Cardinals, but somebody had to do it. We tried to keep our profile low. We just wanted to stay humble and make a contribution so that others would learn that you're not in it for self-praise and self-glory, but to be an inspiration for others that may come."

If this week is any indication, Rev. Greason can rest assured. The kids are paying attention.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.