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January 14, 2007

Give It Up

Posted in: Civil rights

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(It's still Sunday morning out here on the left coast, and so I'm still at work. But I'll be thinking about MLK, Buck O'Neil, and all of you, too. — Peterr) 

That's the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was first awarded by Harry Truman, to honor those who had made special contributions to the nation during World War II. Since then, it has grown to be awarded to people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." Sure, there have been some klinkers who have recieved it, but we can't let that diminish the real and lasting contributions of the others.

On July 4, 1977, President Jimmy Carter gave this award posthumously to Martin Luther King, Jr., with the following citation:

Martin Luther King, Jr., was the conscience of his generation. A southerner, a black man, he gazed on the great wall of segregation and saw that the power of love could bring it down.

From the pain and exhaustion of his fight to free all people from the bondage of separation and injustice, he wrung his eloquent statement of his dream of what America could be.

He helped us overcome our ignorance of one another. He spoke out against a war he felt was unjust, as he had spoken out against laws that were unfair.

He made our nation stronger because he made it better. Honored by kings, he continued to his last days to strive for a world where the poorest and humblest among us could enjoy the fulfillment of the promises of our founding fathers.

His life informed us, his dreams sustain us yet.

(Citation from the dedication page of A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., James M. Washington, editor)

It's easy to forget that during all his leadership years in the civil rights movement, King was basically a young man. He was in his mid-twenties when he led the Montgomery bus boycott, twenty-eight years old at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, thirty-two when the FBI began to tap his phones, thirty-four when he spoke of his dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, thirty-five when he became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and just thirty-nine when he was killed, the day after giving a speech in Memphis in support of striking garbage workers and against various corporations who stood in the way of economic and social progress. 

On December 12, 2006, another southerner, another black man, was given the same award posthumously: John "Buck" O'Neil. He was a great Negro Leagues baseball player and manager, the first African-American coach in major league baseball (with the Chicago Cubs), a scout without peer who raised up new players, a tireless proponent of the story of the players and power of the various Negro baseball leagues, a elf to Kansas City's "Secret Santa," and a true gentleman of the first order. (Click through that link under his name to get a taste of all these things.) In Kansas City he'd been quietly famous for years; with his appearance in the documentary film "Baseball," Ken Burns made him famous to the rest of the nation. 

Last summer, at the age of 94, O'Neil spoke at the induction of seventeen Negro leagues figures into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Many were outraged that Buck was not on the list of those to be inducted (like Keith Olbermann and yours truly), but not Buck. In his remarks that day, in addition to talking about the Negro League inductees, Buck also spoke about brother Martin, and said volumes about himself as well:

And I tell you what, they always said to me Buck, I know you hate people for what they did to you or what they did to your folks. I said no, man, I never learned to hate. I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer – I'm single, ladies. I hate AIDS. A good friend of mine died of AIDS three months ago. I hate AIDS. But I can't hate a human being because my God never made anything ugly. Now, you can be ugly if you want to, boy, but God didn't make you that way.

So I want you to light this valley up this afternoon. Martin [Luther King] said "Agape" is understanding, creative – a redemptive good will toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you reach love on this level, you love all men, not because you like them, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loved them, and I love Jehovah my God with all my heart, with all my soul and I love every one of you as I love myself.

Buck O'Neil died last October 6 in Kansas City. When I was in KC over Christmas, I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum he helped to found, and was blown away. The history, the stories, and so much more. I could have stayed for days, but The Kid is only five, and couldn't take more than a couple of hours. But we'll go back when he's older. . .

The citation for Buck's Presidential Medal of Freedom is rather bland, so instead let me give you the words of Ken Burns, who wrote the preface to Buck's autobiography I Was Right On Time: My Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors:  
     There is nothing you can say about Buck O'Neil that one second in his presence won't prove a hundred times over. It is impossible to resist the positive force that lights him from within and then spreads out and lights and warms you, too. No one is immune to him; only the inattentive miss what is special about him.
    One time, early in the interviewing process for Baseball, we brought Buck up to lily-white Walpole, New Hampshire — lily-white in every sense, from the population to the snow-covered Currier & Ives setting — where we filmed some more interviews and he got to meet some of our editing staff. We all went out to lunch at a little pizza place; it was the first time the staff, who'd seen him on film, had spent any time with him in person. (I always envy people who are meeting Buck for the first time; whether they meet him in a bar or are sitting next to him on a plane, they may not know who this elegant older gentleman is at first, but by the end of their passage they're converts.) A woman who's been with me from the beginning of my work, Susanna, went up to Buck at the start of the lunch and said to him, very formally, "Mr. O'Neil, it's a pleasure to meet you," shook his hand and went back to where she was sitting. So we all had our pizza, and we talked, and then at the end of the meal Susanna went over to Buck again, stuck out her hand, and said, "Mr. O'Neil, it's truly been a pleasure." Well, Buck didn't move, just looked at her, and there was a mortifying pause as her hand stood there in midair, with Buck making no move to take it in his. And then, slowly, gracefully, he stood up, smiled, and opened his arms to her and said "Give it up." And she just flew into his arms. "Give it up."–that's Buck's way. "Give me a hug," yes, but also don't be so formal, don't hide behind polite conventions, don't be afraid to show someone some love. Show what's in your heart, always; don't keep it inside. Give it up. 
Buck and Ken kept crossing paths, and both were in Kansas City on July 28, 1995 for "Buck O'Neil Day" at Kaufman Stadium. The day after the game, on Ken's birthday, they flew to Chicago together before changing to separate planes to go their separate ways. Says Ken, from that same preface:
I was going home, and [Buck] was going to Cooperstown for the long-awaited induction of his late friend Leon Day into the Baseball Hall of Fame. As we were parting at O'Hare Airport, he turned to me and said, "You know, I've been talking to people and saying these same things for sixty years now, but now people are hearing me." There are no words, no prize, no tribute to anything I will ever do, no birthday present, that could mean more to me than that simple sentence from this remarkable man. And there was only one thing I could do: I had to give it up.
We don't have any medals to bestow around here, but on this Martin Luther King holiday weekend, we can surely give it up. Not only can we, but we must. Whether you're young like Martin or old like Buck, you have to give it up.
Give it up for trailblazers for equality like Martin and Buck, who showed that you can live a life of love even in the face of hatred and oppression, and change the world in the process.
Give it up for the storytellers — people like Jimmy Carter, Ken Burns, KC's Secret Santa (who died last Friday), journalist Joe Poznanski (try this link, too), and the Kansas City Royals who help to keep their stories alive.
Finally, give it up to the folks like them that you know, the folks who have touched your life personally:
    give it up to the folks who taught you about love,
    give it up to the folks who taught you about compassion,
    give it up to the folks who taught you about standing up for the powerless,
    give it up to the folks who taught you about speaking up for the voiceless, 
    give it up to the folks who taught you about reaching out to those in need,
    give it up to the folks who taught you about breaking down barriers,
    and most of all,
    give it up to the folks who taught you about giving it up.
Whether they've died or are still around, whether you do it in person, over the phone, in an email, or here in the comments, it's the only thing you can do. 
You have to give it up. 

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