You'd think that 54 years after Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field as a Brooklyn Dodger, integrating Major League Baseball, black and white kids playing in the same sports league would be no big deal.
But efforts to admit a predominantly black grammar school into a mostly white Catholic school league in Chicago's South Side have so far failed, and the case is attracting broader attention, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and a white supremacist group joining the fray.
In May, the 21-team Southside Catholic Conference voted 11-9 to deny membership to predominantly black St. Sabina Grammar School.
The opposing schools said they were concerned with the safety of their children in St. Sabina's Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, which is one of the most crime-ridden areas of Chicago.
But officials and parents at St. Sabina's saw a deeper issue: race.
"I'm saddened that in 2001 we have some of the same headlines and some of the same issues that we had in 1961," said Rev. Michael Pfleger, the parish's pastor. "The sin of racism is a sin we've got to deal with."
Coaches Threaten To Forfeit Games
After an appeal from Chicago's archbishop, Francis George, the conference reversed its decision last month and agreed to admit St. Sabina. But a number of coaches threatened to forfeit games rather than travel to the parish, which is located in a district that had 30 murders and 1,877 assaults in 1999, compared with one murder and seven assaults in Evergreen Park, where several of the league schools are located.
Concerned about the potential humiliation for St. Sabina's students — who would have to suit up and wait 25 minutes before a game is officially declared a forfeit — Pfleger insisted on a no-forfeit policy, and withdrew when the conference said it would not force the member schools to sign it.
George reiterated his support for St. Sabina's, saying the school's no-forfeit demand was "legitimate and necessary ... to assure respect for all those playing."
Outsiders Weigh In
Earlier in the week, Jackson joined more than 30 other black religious leaders at a rally at St. Sabina. Jackson said it was superficial to "embrace Sammy Sosa playing for the Cubs ... and not embrace children playing together in their formative years."
At the weekend, the National Alliance, a white supremacist group based in West Virginia, distributed leaflets to all the parishes included in the league. The leaflets claimed black men are dangerous, especially to whites.