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January 17, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: King’s message resonates with WVU players

MORGANTOWN — I am a child of the era of segregation and prejudice, of snarling police dogs and menacing fire hoses. It was a time when a governor stood in the doorway of a state university and tried to deny entrance of blacks into his school, a time of burning crosses and Ku Klux Klan hoods and civil rights workers disappearing only to be found in shallow graves.

I am, too, a child of the north, so much of that was seen only on a flickering television screen brought into the living room by Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, they being as white as I was for the nation was not yet ready for a black anchorman on the news.

By then Jackie Robinson had integrated baseball, but as huge a step as it was toward bringing equality to the world, it was a baby step in changing the mood and disposition of the racists that were spread throughout the world.

You think of this today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and look around you and see how things have changed and wonder if, indeed, the young black athletes of our era can appreciate what Dr. King and his supporters — and, for that matter, even those who believed in a far more militant approach to bringing about integration and equality — went through.

And so you ask John Flowers, the West Virginia forward, what the man and this day means to him.

“If it wasn’t for people like Martin Luther King I probably wouldn’t be able to play the game today. It’s just amazing what he did for us,” he begins.

He understands the effect King had, but can he from the distance away he now stands, feel the pain?

“I could feel a little bit of his pain but you can’t really grasp the whole concept.”

What was it like? As someone who lived through the era we can offer some observations, stories, feelings.

Even in suburban northern New Jersey, I did not go to school with a black child until junior high school, neighborhood schools effectively creating a segregated elementary school setup. By high school, though, the school was mixed at about 50-50 and the athletic teams were integrated and, to be honest, there was not only no problems but friendships made that belied what we were hearing from the south.

In 1959 I left for the University of Missouri, virtually blind to segregation, yet struck by the fact that there was almost no integration in the college society, learning only recently that just two years earlier had the first black player worn a Missouri football uniform.

It is no wonder, really. At halftime the band played “Dixie” and students stood and waived confederate flags.

WVU forward Kevin Jones, like myself, grew up in a suburb of New York City, not troubled by segregation or prejudice, but he has a feeling for Martin Luther King Jr. and what he went through.

“He was a great inspiration to all of us. He paved the way for a lot of people to do what we’re doing today,” he said.

And just what does Kevin Jones think of when he thinks of Dr. King?

“He stood for peace and equality,” Jones said. “It is hard to imagine we lived in a world like that where people weren’t equal and everything was one-sided. Thanks to him, it’s not that way anymore.

“I hope we keep moving forward.”

Within three years of graduating Missouri I found myself working at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Atlanta had bravely gone behind Mayor Ivan Allen and worked to create “The New South”, bringing major league baseball and NFL football to the city.

It was a daring move, a move that the all-time home run champion Henry Aaron had to be talked into accepting for he did not want to return to his segregated, racist Southern roots. And even after Dr. King’s movement had taken hold, as Aaron challenged Babe Ruth’s home run record, he was flooded with death threats and racially charged correspondence.

There came that day in 1968 when James Earl Ray gunned down Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, a day when the nation was set aflame but where peace held in King’s hometown, Atlanta.

Today, on the holiday, I can still see the funeral procession, thousands upon thousands of mourners, political leaders, civil rights activists, parading down Peachtree Street, beneath the second floor window at the newspaper where I sat, deep in sorrow but not really comprehending what it all meant.

West Virginia guard Truck Bryant, who came here out of Brooklyn, understands.

“He changed things in the world for blacks and whites. He brought everyone together,” Bryant said. “I can’t even imagine what those guys went through. That’s just insane. We’ve come a long way. He sacrificed a lot for us.”

No doubt the world has changed and it is evidence everywhere. But is racism completely gone?

Not at all.

“There’s definitely still some going on in the world today,” Flowers said. “There’s stuff on social networks that you see. It’s not really a big thing. I don’t pay much attention to it.”

He doesn’t have to play much attention to it because Martin Luther King, Jr., did.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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