Chris McNair (b. 1925) Untitled, n.d. Black and white photograph (gelatin silver) Gift of the Artist Brauer Museum of Art, 2005.03

left to right: Ralph and Juanita Abernathy, Jackie Robinson,
Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth
Chris McNair (b. 1925)
Untitled, n.d.
Black and white photograph (gelatin silver)
Gift of the Artist
Brauer Museum of Art, 2005.03

On Monday, Valparaiso University held a number of events as part of MLK Day 2011, celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Here are stories on three of the sessions.

“Beyond Jackie Robinson: Sports and the Color Lines”

Presented by Professor Alan Bloom, History

Should we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day? Should it be Civil Rights Day? How much is MLK Day about one individual?

These questions and more were posed by Professor Alan Bloom as he took the audience at Neils Science Center through a discussion that placed baseball icon Jackie Robinson in historical context.

“How do you tell the story?” Bloom asked about the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. That line was drawn in the late 1800s and continued in effect until 1947. But Robinson was far from a lone pioneer. African American athletes competed in horse racing, the Olympics, boxing, and cycling long before Robinson and the Dodgers made history.

Bloom compared the styles of brash Jack Johnson and patriotic Joe Louis, both African American boxing champions – and both pioneers in their own ways.

The story of Jackie Robinson himself is more complex than that of one man. Breaking the color line took the vision of baseball executive Branch Rickey, who chose Robinson because he was not only a standout athlete, but also had the character and force of will to refrain from fighting back when facing abuse.

“The reason Jackie Robinson became ‘the one’ is much more complex. It wasn’t Jackie Robinson’s idea,” Bloom said. “Branch Rickey, someone who did have power, was able to pull strings to make change happen.”

Equal opportunity in sports did not emerge fully formed with the breaking of professional baseball’s color line. In many other circumstances, integration came slowly. The NFL, for example, used a requirement to interview minority candidates for head coaches in order to integrate those ranks in recent years under the Rooney Rule.

“How do you deal with this legacy of racism?” Bloom asked those in attendance. “Do you have Rooney Rules?”

Bloom also asked the audience to think about the other frontiers of equality in sports: gender and sexuality.

“Sports Mascots and Native Americans”

Presented by Professor James Kingsland, Political Science

The Victory Bell room at the Harre Union was overflowing with students interested in Professor James Kingsland’s presentation, which focused on the debate over the revival of the controversial University of Illinois mascot, Chief Illiniwek. In 2007, a University of Illinois board of trustees announced that the Chief would no longer be used as a symbol of the university.

He started the debate by having everyone read several articles, both for and against the University’s use of the Chief. By a show of hands, Kingsland asked who was for and who was against the revival of the chief as the university’s symbol, or mascot. Of the 50-plus attendees only three were against.

The pro debate points given focused on the history of the development of the chief, and how the school spent much energy making sure that his costume, dance and mannerisms were presented as authentically and respectfully as possible. Created by an American Indian of the Sioux Tribe, the chief’s headdress, costume and dance are prime examples of the university’s care in the matter.

The debate against focused on the need to understand American Indians, a minority, who, for the most part, are treated as second-class citizens, and who continue to fight for basic representation and power in America.

Kingsland drew a comparison that made many in the room pause to think when he asked, “If a man dressed as the Pope came onto the floor at halftime of a basketball game, accompanied by a Gregorian Chant, and sprinkled holy water around the court, would Christians find that offensive?”

The feeling in the room seemed to be that the one-hour debate ended too soon —  there was much more to learn from each other about individual ideas of acceptance, and respect of other cultures through something as simple as a school mascot.

“Oh, yes, I can.”

Presented by Lorrie Woycik, Special Olympics

Lorrie Woycik can’t image what it would be like to be told “Something is wrong with your child.” To her, nothing is wrong with any of her “children.” Woycik has been a special education teacher since 1969 and a Special Olympics volunteer since the program began in Porter County. This MLK day, she challenged a room packed full of Valparaiso University students to imagine being the one person in the whole room who was looked at differently.

She wondered aloud what the world would be like if we were all blind.

“We wouldn’t see the differences!” she exclaimed. “We would treat each other better.”

Lorrie compared the academic and physical disabilities some of her “children” have to what we simply call flaws in people without disabilities. “Why are they looked at differently? We all have disabilities in some way” she said.

With that, she introduced two of her Special Olympians. Jennifer and Tony shared stories of isolation, exclusion and anger before they became involved in the Special Olympics. Tony routinely got into fights with kids who were mean to him. And Jennifer remembers having no friends when she was young.

“I was very angry growing up.” Jennifer remembered. “I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.”

Jennifer was even worried about joining the Special Olympics. She thought it would just be another thing people could make fun of her about.  After meeting a boy who was in the Special Olympics, she decided to give it a shot. Now, she is getting ready for a state championship in three track and field events.

Tony began participating in the Special Olympics when he was still in elementary school. He recently won a state basketball title and is currently in their leadership program.

Woycik points out that these are just two of the many success stories that the Special Olympics have to tell. The Olympians are encouraged to always try to turn a negative into a positive, and never say “I can’t.”  

“Do you have a dream?” Woycik asked. When everyone responded with a nod, she reminded those in attendance that dreams are as different as the people who dream them, but none are more deserving than the next.

“Dreams can come true if you work at it,” Tony says.

There is a lot to learn from in the honesty and dedication of these Special Olympians, if one takes the time to listen.