Hank Aaron, the black former Major League Baseball star who in 1974 surpassed the home-run record held by Babe Ruth, an American icon who was white, recently reflected on that bittersweet time — sweet because the record finally was his, but bitter because America was exposed as a nation with too many bigots.
Aaron’s reflection came in an article in USA Today on the 40th anniversary of the record 715th home run, which was achieved on April 8, 1974, before a crowd of 53,775 people, a Braves’ attendance record for Fulton County Stadium.
Aaron, whose chase of Ruth earned him hate mail and death threats, said of then and now: “A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.” And if to prove Aaron correct, the Atlanta Braves, for whom Aaron works, began receiving hate mail because of Aaron’s comments.
We don’t agree with Aaron’s assessment, believing that many good miles have been traveled on the black-and-white highway during those 40 years, but we also have never wore his cleats. We believe the best evidence of a different America is that this country has elected a black man as our president, which was unimaginable in 1974.
Aaron swatted that aside.
“… Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated …. .”
Aaron then compared the president’s critics to the Ku Klux Klan.
“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”
Oh yes, the KKK, a racist outfit that met its match in nearby Robeson County in 1958 when Klansmen were chased out by Lumbee Indians. They were also chased from Columbus County a few years earlier, but then it was by pen, and not force.
That story was better seen in the TV production of “The Editor and the Dragon,” which tells the story of Horace Carter, who took on the KKK in the early 1950s while editor of the Tabor City Tribune, an effort that not only advanced the civil-rights cause, but won Carter a Pulitzer Prize.
The story, we believe, is a wonderful reminder of where this nation once was and how far we have come. But we agree with Aaron on this: bigotry now is more subtle if less pervasive. There were votes cast against Obama only because he is black, and for Obama for the exact same reason.
While “The Editor and the Dragon” is evidence of how far we have come, Aaron is not wrong when he suggests we still have a ways to go.