ATLANTA -- When Atlanta's home run king took the stage to recognize two of the city's most influential civil rights advocates, it was hard to tell which of the men at the podium was most in awe of the other's accomplishments.
Former Georgia Congressman and United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young and former state Sen. Leroy Johnson were honored as the inaugural recipients of the Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Award to begin the Braves' inaugural Heritage Weekend on Friday afternoon at Turner Field, recognizing their contributions to the civil rights movement over careers that stretched decades and comprised a varied range of leadership roles in Atlanta and beyond.
"The Braves are an integral part of this community," Johnson said. "When they came, they made certain that one of their objectives was to be a part of the Atlanta community. They've done that, and Hank Aaron, his record speaks for itself. I'm just proud to be one of the first recipients of the Hank Aaron Award, which is just, to me, extremely important."
The ceremony followed a panel discussion focusing on the intersection between civil rights and sports, featuring former Braves outfielder Brian Jordan, NBA great Bernard King, former Tuskegee Airman Val Archer and 1968 Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith.
As the owner and manager of his law firm for over 47 years, Johnson represented figures such as Aaron, Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Otis Redding. In 1962, Johnson became the first black man elected to the Georgia Senate in nearly a century, serving until 1975.
"I've been fortunate enough to be elected as the first black senator of the legislature of Georgia in 100 years, and I've been fortunate enough to obtain a license to put Muhammad Ali back into the ring," Johnson said. "This award is equally important to me because it's an award offered by Hank Aaron."
Young, the former mayor of Atlanta and a colleague and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., spoke about his longtime friendship with Aaron, who moved down the street from Young upon his arrival in Atlanta.
"It's almost kind of cheating for him to give me an award, but I'll take it anyway," Young said.
The panelists swapped stories and addressed issues of race and sports in society across multiple eras, from the Jim Crow laws that Archer lived through in the years before the desegregation of the military to the prejudice and perceptions Jordan had to overcome in his first years as a professional athlete in the early 1990s.
"Ambassador Young here marched with Martin Luther King. They opened the doors for me to dream big, and as a kid, that's exactly what I did," Jordan said. "I dreamed big, I wanted to be a two-sport professional athlete. I set my goals, and I went out there and achieved."
According to Smith, who is most famous for the controversial Black Power salute he and bronze medalist John Carlos gave on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the panelists felt compelled to keep the stories from their past alive in order to continue to push their message forward to future generations.
"There are some of us who are still doing what we did when we were much younger," Smith said. "We did it because we believed in it, because 40-45 years later, we're still doing it. Our being senior in what we did lends credence to the people that we are training, that anyone who gets training from this story should take it and use it as they grow, so they'll have a legacy from the legacy they're emerging from, and that's pride."
Bernard King discussed his athletic career as well as his work as a consultant for the NBA's Brooklyn Nets during their relocation, when he demanded that the franchise create jobs for the neighborhoods of his childhood surrounding the team's new arena. He also delivered an impassioned plea for new leaders in disadvantaged areas to help motivate the next generation.
"We are losing our youth," King said to a round of applause. "We are losing a whole generation of kids."
The ceremony kicked off the Braves' inaugural Heritage Weekend, which will feature pregame ceremonies and exhibits honoring Negro Leagues players and the Tuskegee Airmen, among other attractions. The events will run throughout this weekend's series with the Nationals.
"As we reflected on the two seasons where we hosted Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Game, we felt like that special spirit and that special focus ought to continue and ought to be enhanced," Braves president John Schuerholz said. "We've kept that spirit alive, we've kept that feeling and focus alive, and we intend to enhance it."
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less