Racial Lessons from the Hank Aaron Story

April 10, 1995|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- I have been judging college-bound students for scholarships lately, and more than a few have asked me, ''What caused the rebirth of racism in America?''

I have been asked what happened to produce a climate where people want to deprive them of financial aid, where racism tears a jury apart in the O. J. Simpson trial, and where New York's Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato can act like a bigoted idiot by insulting Judge Lance Ito personally and Japanese Americans in general.

I am telling these youngsters to be sure to watch the TBS movie Wednesday on the life of baseball hero Hank Aaron. Produced by Denzel Washington and Debra Martin Chase, this story of the life of a poor kid from Mobile, Alabama, who persevered to break Babe Ruth's home-run record and set a baseball standard of 755 home runs, will remind them that:

* The playing field of American life will never be level for them, and will often be dangerous.

Thus they must be brave and diligent to surmount denials of opportunity by those crying ''reverse discrimination.''

* Racism in America never dies. It just goes dormant during economic good times when the country is blessed by great white political leadership.

Almost all who watch ''Chasing the Dream,'' a moving and angering story of Hank Aaron's climb into the history books, will be shocked by reminders that the racial hatreds we thought were erased by Jackie Robinson erupted anew when it became apparent that ''Hammerin' Hank'' might break Ruth's record.

Suddenly, in 1973 and 1974, Aaron was getting 3,000 letters a day, most of them racial insults and threats of death if he broke the Babe's record of 714 home runs.

After he hit home run No. 700 on July 21, 1973, the FBI had to monitor the death threats. Aaron had to change where he slept from night to night. An attempt was made to kidnap one of his daughters. An armed bodyguard took to the diamond when Aaron did.

When Hank ended the 1973 season stuck at 713 home runs, one short of Ruth's record, another flood of letters warned him not to show up in 1974. ''You'll never make it around the bases,'' said a letter signed, ''Your friendly neighborhood nigger hater.''

The movie gives us the high drama of April 4, 1974, when Vice President Gerald Ford showed up (with 250 writers) to see Aaron's Atlanta Braves play the Reds in Cincinnati. Ford led a standing ovation when Aaron hit a three-run homer.

President Nixon cooled the mobs when he declared that Aaron represented ''power, poise, courage, consistency . . . America at its very best.''

Jimmy Carter was close by on April 8, 1974, defying any assassin's bullet, when Aaron lashed an Al Downing pitch out of the Atlanta stadium, breaking Ruth's record.

Courageous politicians, Republican and Democrat, defused that 1970s outburst of racial madness. In a more peaceful baseball atmosphere, Aaron went on to the Hall of Fame.

The documentary will tell minority and poor kids that they must be brave, as Aaron was, and endure the slings and bigotries of current political leaders.

They must believe that the pendulum will swing once again toward a level playing field and fair rules on the campuses and in the workplaces of America.

0 Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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