Monday, January 21, 2013

Hank Aaron & Economic Integration in the Deep South

Last year, Howard Bryant wrote a great piece for discussing the role that professional sports, particularly baseball and Hank Aaron, played in the Civil Rights movement.  Since today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, now is a great time to grab a coffee and revisit Byrant's piece.

Sometimes, I make fun of baseball for how it drapes itself in the pageantry of history.  Whenever baseball wants to say that they're performed a service for society, they start shouting "Jackie Robinson! Jackie Robinson! Jackie Robinson!" repeatedly until you just want them to shut up.  Bryant illustrates a different -- and, quite frankly, more productive -- view of Major League Baseball's influence on the Civil Rights movement by starting in 1963 with rumors that the Milwaukee Braves were going to move to Atlanta.

We hear about teams moving through the history of baseball: Boston Braves to Milwaukee, Baltimore Orioles to New York, St Louis Browns to Baltimore, Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City, Washington Senators to Minnesota, etc.  So, when we remember that the Braves went from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta, we don't think anything of it.  But notice how not one of the team moves I mentioned went to a Southern city?  I never thought about that until, in Byrant's piece, he brought up that, before the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, the Deep South didn't have professional sports teams -- period.  You might be able to argue that the Houston Colt .45s (later Astros), formed in 1962, was the first professional sports team in the Deep South, but that was it.  Professional football wasn't there, ditto for basketball.

This forces us to remember the South that was during the beginning of the 1960s, when MLK marched on Washington for his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.  America was changing, and Southern cities were faced with a choice to change or suffer from stagnation.  These days, we regard Atlanta as a world class city but back in the 1960s, you might be surprised at what cities Byrant points out that Atlanta was equal to:
"In Atlanta, we could've gone either way." [Said Andrew Young, Civil Rights leader and former Mayor of Atlanta.] "We had a choice to make: Did we want to be Birmingham, or did we want to be something different? In places like Little Rock, they tried to desegregate from the bottom up, starting with the schools. In Atlanta, we took a top-down approach. It was the business leaders, Coca-Cola especially, that decided that it would have been to our political and economic disadvantage to fight civil rights with fire hoses and dogs and more segregation, the way they did in Birmingham. Birmingham had the infrastructure to remain the region's economic powerhouse, but instead it became isolated. It was the symbol for our business community of what not to be. And it was the business and political leaders who believed that the one way to be a world-class city was to have sports teams."
Atlanta being equal to Birmingham, and Little Rock...  These seem like silly, silly notions today.  But that was the state of the world back at the beginning of the 1960s.  So, unlike countless other franchise moves from city to city, the Braves wanting to move from Milwaukee to Atlanta was a big deal.

Perhaps more importantly, though, was what the Braves' superstar outfielder thought of the move -- Hank Aaron.  A black man from the Deep South who didn't want to return there, but without him the franchise wouldn't be worth as much.

Anyways, I'll shut up because Howard Byrant's piece on how professional sports, and Hank Aaron choosing to go back to the Deep South, helped bring economic integration to the region, is better than my description of it.  Go read it.

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