Houston Baseball and Dr. King

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, DC, 8/28/1963.

On the very day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream Speech” in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC back on August 28, 1963, the Civil Rights movement in Houston, Texas had barely moved a practical inch since its national inception in 1954. That earlier year had witnessed the end of total segregation in local professional sports with the addition of the wonderful Bob Boyd to the roster of the Houston Buffs in May 1954 as the first black to formally play with whites here in any team sport.

Bob Boyd still had to live and travel on the road to inferior segregated accommodations in 1954. White Houston and Texas were neither ready for greater physical mixture of the races back then. Not all of us white Houstonians felt this fear of integration in 1954, but the vocal majority that ran things for everyone mostly did and, by their actions and inactions, the white-dominated power structure allowed schools, landlords, and local businesses to keep up their courses of racial segregation and outright denial of service to blacks for a while longer in “subtler” ways..

Through 1954, that little uncovered grandstand down the right field line served as the "colored section" and one blight on the good old days at Buff Stadium in Houston.

Segregation continued to breathe in Houston until it could no longer stand up against the joint forces of social protest and the determination of the federal government to support a vigorous new policy on Civil Rights. These mighty forces of support for Constitutional allegiance overwhelmed the most serious forms of public resistance to change. Those of us who supported these changes were largely young and idealistic. We believed in our country as a place where we all maintained our rights to differ from each other, but that we trusted that we were also a nation at the end of the day that would bear forth our identity as The United States of America.

By the time of the famous speech of Dr. King in August 1963, the old Houston Buffs had been dead for two years as a minor league franchise. The City of Houston now played its professional baseball in the National League at Colt Stadium as the Colt .45s. The 1963 Colt .45s were a racially integrated ball club, all right, but young black players from northern cities, players like future star Jimmy Wynn, were also still busy getting their full taste of what life could be like in a transitional “southern city.”

By 1963, the old supporters of full segregation had gotten the hammer and adjusted their tactics. Instead of making it easy for the people to protest or petition against loud statements of “Segregation Spoken Here,” the old guard went to quieter forms of resistance to integratiion.

Residential services put out the “no room in the inn” sign to black applicants; restaurants evoked the assumed power of their ever popular “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone” signs as a basis for not serving minorities; and some movie theaters put up the “sold out” sign for blacks attempting to buy tickets at previously all white venues.

Bob Boyd broke the "color line" in all Houston sports when he joined the Houston Buffs baseball club in May 1954.

In a perfect world, we would have resolved all these differences by now, but forty-eight years beyond “I Have A Dream,” we have achieved only a smaller victory. Blacks in Houston may now live, work, and commerce as they please in 2011 Houston, but that doesn’t mean that blacks are now impervious to more subtle and intelligently designed forms of discrimination. They are still out there – just waiting for ignition by smarter white racists whose skills for survival exceed their impulses to act in blatant hatred. These monsters do it quieter.

On the big plus side, Houstonians appear to be much more color-blind today about their sports heroes. Maybe when “he runs pretty fast for a white guy” disappears, we’ll know we’ve made real progress. In the meanwhile, we may have to settle for the fact that fans don’t go around saying “that Michael Bourn sure is a great little black center fielder.” Colorblindness is key to really getting to know the person behind the skin, but it only happens individually. Once more, the reminder checks in. Life works a lot easier when we look for signs of practical improvement and not get stuck on how things “should be” in a perfect world.

Houston baseball is what it is as a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement. The same is true of Houston. Today we are poised to become one of the great international cities of the world. All we have to do is keep making progress on our commitment to both “respect difference” and “equalize opportunity.” The cream will rise to the top from there.

Thanks for everything, Dr. King. You weren’t perfect either, but you had more vision, courage, and faith in America than just about anyone else in history . Many leaders put their lives on the line for the sake of power. You put your life on the line in behalf of righteousness. Thank you for the gift of that great love and devotion to God’s Work.

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One Response to “Houston Baseball and Dr. King”

  1. Marsha Franty Says:

    Thanks, Bill, for another thoughtful and insightful essay. When I moved here from Boston in 1975, I told the relocation realtor that I wanted a suburban home in a nice, integrated subdivision in a certain price range. She looked at me and said, “This is Houston, honey.” It was many years before the neighborhood we selected had its first black residents. Some “local” neighbors here were quite taken aback when some good friends from Massachusetts arrived to sleep in our guest room, eat from our dishes, use our bathrooms, etc. And these were “educated” people!
    I have never gotten over it, and never will. Houston opened its arms to me, but had I been an African-American, I would have received an entirely different reception. Just imagine what we have lost by not treating our fellow citizens with due respect.

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