Ex-Braves inspire with middle school visit
Harper, Nixon serve on panel in advance of Civil Rights Game
ATLANTA -- When Kailani Anderson was instructed to enter the Crawford W. Long Middle School gymnasium Tuesday afternoon, she didn't know what to expect. She didn't know there were two former Braves players waiting to talk to her, along with the rest of the selected students who were invited in for a 70-minute chat. She didn't know they were going to help her think about how best to achieve her goals.
Anderson is a sixth-grader at Long, but she already knows where she's headed in life. She wants to be an entrepreneur, and after asking Doug Shipman, the CEO for the Center for Civil and Human Rights -- and the moderator of Tuesday's panel at the school -- about how to make that happen, she now has a plan how to get there.
"I have a much better idea than when I first came here," said Anderson, who was so impressive in her question-asking that Shipman pulled her aside after the discussion to give her his business card. "They really helped. When I asked them my questions, I was listening very attentively to what they said. It was an honor having them here."
At the event, part of the lead-up to the May 15 Civil Rights Game at Turner Field, Shipman was the one asking most of the questions to his panel.
She asked Terry Harper (a seven-year veteran who played for the Braves, Pirates and Tigers from 1980-87) about his experiences while dealing with racism. He questioned Otis Nixon (former Braves outfielder who played 17 years for nine teams and is 16th on all the all-time stolen bases list) about his role models growing up in Evergreen, N.C. He wanted Freddie Seymour (the head of the Minor League Operations department for MLB) and Braves partner services coordinator Aman Milner to describe how they landed their jobs.
Most of all, the panelists wanted to give a little hope, to point out the lit pathway that can lead to success, to help somebody like Anderson land the job of her dreams 10-15 years down the road.
"You have to give back," said Nixon, who helps his wife, recording artist minister Candi Staton, mentor people in all phases of life and who also authored the book, "Keeping It Real."
"This might be the opportunity when you can reach a kid. These kids might be going left to right, and they might want to go straight ahead. You might say something to them -- whether it's a boy or a girl -- to help them achieve the kinds of goals they want to do in life."
Nixon and Harper also lent a little perspective.
Harper began playing pro ball in 1973 -- the same time that Harper's hero, Hank Aaron, was receiving racist hate mail during his chase of Babe Ruth's home run record. On Tuesday, he told stories of seeing the white hoods of KKK members when he went to practice in Greenwood, S.C., and how the Braves organization had to rent a house for the 14 black and Latino players who were on the rookie-league team in Wytheville, W.Va., because nobody else in town would rent homes to those players.
"There was a lot of hate," Harper said. "But there was also a lot of good."
Harper mostly has good memories today. And why not? While growing up in Douglasville, Ga., his biggest goal was to work the fields of his family farm just like his dad. Now, he tries to inspire through the memories of his former pro career.
"As an ex-professional like myself, I work with kids and do several programs that can help develop an inner-city kid," Harper said. "The kids have talent, but they're not given the fundamentals when they're young. That's the biggest thing."
When Nixon looked around the packed bleachers Tuesday, he could see himself in the faces of the young teenagers who stared back at him. He could remember how badly he wanted to be inspired when he was in middle school.
"I wanted somebody to come out to my school," Nixon said. "Nobody ever came. I said to myself that if I ever got the opportunity, I was going to give back. Maybe [these students] will go and give back, too. One of these kids is going to be successful, if not more of them -- I guarantee you -- and they're going to know that this meant a lot to them. They'll give back in the same way."
Josh Katzowitz is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.