I took a break last weekend from my normal outdoor pursuits of hunting, fishing and camping. The reason was simple: Baseball great Hank Aaron was in town. I wanted my two boys to get a chance to meet him.
Aaron was in Memphis, Tenn., representing Major League Baseball at its Second Annual Civil Rights Baseball Game. To see Aaron, though, the boys would have to sit through a two-hour seminar on Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement at the National Civil Rights Museum.
I knew my oldest, Bennett, 16, could do it, though I had doubts about my 9-year-old, George. But he was genuinely excited about the chance of seeing the man who broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.
I thought it necessary to give the boys a little civil rights history lesson on the way to the museum. As is common in teachable moments with children, I got the lesson.
Bennett was familiar with Dr. King from school lessons on the civil rights movement. George recognized King's name, but did not know what the civil rights movement was — or what the word racism meant.
I explain the hate, disrespect and shame white Americans heaped on black Americans simply because of the color of their skin. George looks bewildered. I try again.
"People's moms and dads teach them to be racists," I tell him. "It would be like our family hating your foster sister, Sanshe, just because she is black. We wouldn't let her into our home. We would say hurtful things to her. And we certainly wouldn't let her daughter, Lee-Lee, come visit us."
He understands now.
"That would be stupid, Dad," he says.
From the mouths of babes, thank God. How simple. How true.
We pass Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. A statue of the Confederate major general looms at its center and is visible from the street.
"If I were mayor, I'd tear that statue down," I say.
"Why?" asks Bennett.
"Because he was the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan," I say. "That organization did nothing but spew hate, lynch blacks and murder people."
"I've never heard of it," Bennett says.
I'm shocked. Have we come so far in the 40 years since Dr. King was murdered that today's kids don't know who the Ku Klux Klan is?
I hope so. Yet they need to know, so they can quickly call stupid stupid, hate hate and evil evil.
"The mayor here is black, and he hasn't torn that statue down," Bennett says. "Why not?"
"I can't speak for him," I say. "I just know what I would do."
We pull into the museum parking lot.
It is the actual Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
I point to the large memorial wreath on the second-floor balcony, marking the spot where Dr. King stood as he was shot.
The boys don't speak. Their attention is riveted to the spot.
They know death. They've seen it.
I wonder what they're thinking but don't ask. It's private. Each unconsciously breathes a heavy sigh before moving again.
Bright lights, cameras and people talking expectantly greet us as we walk inside. MLB.com will simulcast the discussion.
We're fortunate to get into the small auditorium and take our seats. Bennett and George are the only children in the room.
"There he is!" I say, pointing to an older man in a suit and tie who noticeably limps by and has trouble getting up the three steps to the stage. "That's Hank Aaron."
George's eyes are wide with excitement, a smile from ear to ear. He never saw the fast, graceful rightfielder who could turn his wrists over so quickly and hit line drives that just carried on forever.
However, he knows what a home run is. He plays church league baseball, and he's experienced the wild joy he and his teammates have when one of them hits a home run. Over the fence or a grounder through three sets of legs, it's an understood, universal happiness.
The panel that joins Aaron is exceptional. Jackie Robinson's daughter, Sharon. Malcolm X's oldest daughter, Atallah Shabazz. Chicago White Sox General Manager Ken Williams and New York Mets General Manager Omar Minaya. Finally, there is Martin Luther King III, who Harvard Law School Professor and moderator Charles Olgletree points out, has the courage to come to the place where his father's blood was spilled.
Their words are uplifting, challenging, encouraging and sobering. Much has changed in 40 years. Much still needs changing.
"You kept nodding your head in there at what they were saying," Bennett says as we head back to the van. "I didn't understand half of what they were talking about, but thanks for taking me."
This is not a time for another lecture.
He and George pause and look up at the second-floor balcony again.
George has a phone message to call a classmate who wants him to come over and play the next day.
That evening, he talks to his friend's mother about the arrangements, finishes and hands me my cell phone.
"Griffin's mom isn't a racist," he says matter-of-factly.
I'm shocked again.
"What makes you say that?" I ask.
"She went to see Hank Aaron when she was a little girl in Atlanta," he says. "She didn't say anything bad about him — and said he was real nice."
I shake my head in wonder.
Before going to his room for bed that night, Bennett thanks me again for taking him to see Hank Aaron.
I'm happy. Even though he didn't comprehend all of what the panelists talked about, he did enjoy seeing a baseball legend.
"Good night," I say.
"Good night, Dad," he says heading toward his bedroom.
He pauses and turns back.
"You know, Dad, they really should remove that statue.