As we remember the 40th anniversary of that dark day of April 4th 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, it's worth recalling the reaction by Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star Roberto Clemente.
Clemente was devastated by the news of King's assassination but didn't suffer in silence. Instead, he led a charge to prevent the Pirates and Astros from opening their season on April 8th, the day before King's burial. He convinced his teammates on the Pirates, which included 11 African Americans, to stand with him. Opening Day was moved to April 10th, and Roberto Clemente had put sports in its proper perspective.
It might seem odd that Clemente, a proud Puerto Rican national, would have led such an extraordinary action. But Clemente, who had a passionate belief in social and economic justice, considered King a personal hero. He had even met face to face with Dr. King, spending a day together on Clemente's farm in Puerto Rico.
David Maraniss quotes Clemente's feelings about King in his 2005 biography of the Hall of Fame outfielder:
"When Martin Luther King started doing what he did, he changed the whole system of the American style. He put the people, the ghetto people, the people who didn't have nothing to say in those days, they started saying what they would have liked to say for many years that nobody listened to. Now with this man, these people come down to the place where they were supposed to be but people didn't want them, and sit down there as if they were white and call attention to the whole world. Now that wasn't only the black people but the minority people. The people who didn't have anything, and they had nothing to say in those days because they didn't have any power, they started saying things and they started picketing, and that's the reason I say he changed the whole world..."
Clemente's affinity for King and the civil rights movement was rooted in his own experience with racism in the United States. Clemente played from 1954 to 1972, years that saw profound change in both Major League Baseball and U.S. society. His career spanned the entirety of the black freedom struggle from the Montgomery Bus Boycotts to the urban ghetto rebellions; from Rosa Parks to the Black Panthers. Being raised in a proud Puerto Rican household did not prepare Clemente for the racism he encountered in the U.S. Even as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, Clemente never knew of the existence of racism before coming to the U.S. mainland. He would tell reporters that he learned that dark skin "was bad over here."
The first half of his career, the Pirates held their spring training in the still-segregated south. The Pirates' spring games were in Ft. Myers, Florida, which even by the standards of 1950s Florida was deeply segregated. Years later, Clemente's only memories of his first spring training consisted of eating on the bus with other players of color while his white teammates dined inside at both fancy restaurants and greasy spoons.
For someone who had never heard of Jim Crow, these were painful times. Clemente's friend Vic Power, a highly skilled Puerto Rican player for the Kansas City Athletics, was dragged off his team's bus one spring by the local authorities for buying a Coke from a whites-only gas station. Speaking together later, Clemente seethed at the humiliation, feeling it as if it were his own. Power tried to calm Clemente down. His approach was humor. Power liked to tell the story of a waitress telling him, "We don't serve Negroes," and responding, "That's OK. I don't eat Negroes."
But Clemente just couldn't handle it that way. In Maraniss' biography, Clemente was quoted thusly: "They say, 'Roberto, you better keep your mouth shut because they will ship you back.' [But] this is something from the first day I said to myself: I am in the minority group. I am from the poor people. I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So I am going to be treated like a human being. I don't want to be treated like a Puerto Rican, or a black, or nothing like that. I want to be treated like any person."
Clemente had a profound social conscience and drive for justice, colored by a belief that he would die before his time. This came to pass when he died on December 31, 1972 after he boarded a ramshackle plane, attempting to fly to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua with 4,000 extra pounds of relief materials. His wife Vera remembered, "He always said he would die young that this was his fate."
Dr. King shared this personal fatalism. On April 3, 1968 King gave a speech saying, "I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land."
We aren't yet at any kind of promised land, but Clemente and King both helped chart a path in the right direction. It's critical to remember them not as superhuman icons, but as ordinary people who sacrificed to do extraordinary things. As the Black Panther Party newspaper Panther Speaks wrote in their obituary of Clemente, "It is ironic that the profession in which he achieved 'legendry' [status] knew him the least. Roberto Clemente did not, as the Commissioner of Baseball maintained, 'Have about him a touch of royalty.' Roberto Clemente was simply a man, a man who strove to achieve his dream of peace and justice for oppressed people throughout the world."
Dave Zirin is the author of "Welcome to the Terrordome" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com. Comment on this article at www.edgeofsports.com