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Remember the Cannon Street YMCA all-stars

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Message Chris Lamb

Dozens of boys played during the spring and summer of 1955 in Charleston, South Carolina, in the first black Little League in the state of South Carolina. When the season ended, the coaches selected the best players for an all-star team and registered the team for the city tournament. The boys were told they would keep playing as long as they kept winning -- all the way to Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

But the black team's mere presence on a baseball field was enough to cause the greatest crisis in Little League history.

It drove every other team in South Carolina out of Little League Baseball. It cost the organization hundreds and hundreds of teams in the South. Creighton Hale, once the president of Little League Baseball, called the 1955 Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars "the most significant amateur team in baseball history."

The 2014 Little League World Series runs from August 14-24 in Williamsport. This year is the 75th anniversary of Little League Baseball -- and the organization will no doubt commemorate its history with great fanfare.

I hope Little League Baseball remembers the 1955 Cannon Street all-stars, who unwittingly found themselves in the middle of the civil rights movement that was taking root in the United States.

On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court transformed civil rights in the United States in Brown v. Board of Education by ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. A year later, on May 31, 1955, the Court ordered school districts to proceed with desegregation in what is known as Brown II.

Southerners, including politicians, ministers, and newspaper editors, condemned the Brown decision because it confronted Jim Crowism and the sordid doctrine of white supremacy that defined their way of life. This argument was so tenuous that if black kids were allowed to play baseball with white kids, life, as Southerners knew it, would cease to exist.

Danny Jones, the director of Little Leagues in the state of South Carolina, took his stand against the Cannon Street team in Charleston, a short distance from where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in April 12, 1861. Jones led a boycott of white teams against the black 11 and 12 year olds.

The Cannon Street team won the city tournament and then the state tournament by forfeit. Having won the state tournament, the Cannon Street boys should have advanced to the regional tournament in Rome, Georgia. If they won the Rome tournament, they would go to the Little League World Series in Williamsport.

But this did not happen.

Little League Baseball told the team it was ineligible for the regional tournament because it had advanced by forfeit. According to the organization's rules, a team had to play and win at least one game in each qualifying tournament to advance. The Cannon Street team appealed to Peter McGovern, executive director of Little League Baseball, but he denied the appeal.

Cannon Street players later learned that McGovern had been told that the boys' safety would be at risk if they confronted segregation laws in Rome.

McGovern invited the team to Williamsport for the World Series. The boys could stay in the same dormitory and eat in the same cafeteria as the boys who were playing in the World Series. But the Cannon Street boys could not play. They could only sit in the bleachers and watch other boys play for the Little League World Series championship.

What is it like to watch someone else live out your dreams?

The Cannon Street team all-stars and their coaches sat in the stands for the finals of the World Series. They were recognized with a standing ovation. Then they drove back to Charleston.

On August 28, the day they arrived in Charleston, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old, was brutalized and murdered in Money, Mississippi, for whistling at a white woman. A little more than three months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

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Chris Lamb is a professor of Communication at the College of Charleston, in Charleston, SC, he teaches courses in journalism and media studies. He has written hundreds of newspaper columns that have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles (more...)
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