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A Black History Moment: Cicely Tyson and Hank Aaron

By Fletcher Word
Sojourner’s Truth Editor

The post civil-rights era of the early 1970s was filled with contradictions – a major war winding down yet extended for political purposes, cultural upheaval in entertainment and fashion, groundbreaking political achievement for African Americans, uncelebrated by establishment politicians.

In 1970 Kenneth Gibson was elected mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and was the first black mayor of a major northeastern city. His election was followed, in the 1970s, by a slew of such black urban elected achievements – Tom Bradley was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1973 and Maynard Jackson of Atlanta later in the same year.

The Congressional Black Caucus was founded in 1971 by 13 representatives, including Louis Stokes of Ohio. President Richard Nixon refused to meet with them. The next year, Barbara Jordan of Texas and Andrew Young of Georgia became the first black congressional representatives from the South since 1898.

Also in politics, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) became the first black person to campaign for the presidential nomination of a major political party  in 1972

With few exceptions, it was not a period filled with glory in the film business for black-themed motion pictures – black exploitation films were the norm. One of the few exceptions was “Sounder,” a film released in 1972, starring the luminous Cicely Tyson who would become a star, in spite of staying true to her values. She would avoid the blaxploitation films, she would refuse to play prostitutes, drug addicts and other demeaning roles.

It was still not a particularly comfortable era for black sports stars. White America was still very uneasy about the ascendancy of black athletes in the 1960’s and the outspokenness of several – Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, for example, along with the fists raised by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics. And many white Americans were not prepared to accept the idea of a Black man shattering perhaps the most revered of sports records – Babe Ruth’s career home run mark of 714 that had stood for almost four decades by 1974 – a record that even the most casual sports fan knew by heart. White America was certainly not prepared for Black man to pass Ruth as Hank Aaron did in April 1974 before a national television audience.

Cicely Tyson, born in Harlem in 1924, grew up in poverty and became a fashion model before entering the film world at the age of 30. The film business proved to be a difficult choice; Tyson was often out of work for months, sometimes years at a time, even after her ground-breaking, Oscar-nominated role in “Sounder.”


She would only accept roles displaying “strength, pride and dignity.” In 1997, she said” “I wait for roles – first, to be written for a woman, then, to be written for a black woman. Then I have the audacity to be selective about the kinds or roles I play. I’ve really got three strikes against me.”





Along with “Sounder,” a film about Depression-era black sharecroppers facing various crises, Tyson’s significant work included a TV film, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” and roles portraying Harriet Tubman, Coretta Scott King, Chicago educator Marva Collins, the mothers of Rosa Parks and Olympic track star Wilma Rudolph.

Tyson won three Emmys, a SAG Award, a Tony and an honorary Academy Award and continued working on screen and in Broadway roles past the age of 90.

Hank Aaron, born in Mobile, Alabama in 1934, also grew up in poverty – so poor his family could not afford baseball equipment. He would practice hitting bottle caps with sticks. He had his first tryout with a major league baseball organization at the age of 15 but did not make the team.

During high school, Aaron joined an independent Nego league team, the Mobile Black Bears, after a stint with the Pritchard Athletics, earning $3 per game.

Finally, in 1951, a scout signed Aaron to a contract with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. Aaron did so well that, after three months, he received offers from MLB teams, the New York Giants and the Boston Braves. The Braves offered $50 more per month.

Aaron was called up to the major leagues in 1954 and was a model of consistency over the years. The Ruthian 714 mark was often discussed in the 50s and 60s but Aaron was not often in the discussion. Players with flashier yearly statistics, the Yankees’ Mickey Mantle and the Giants’ Willie Mays, for example, were given much better odds at topping the mark than Aaron. However, Mantle, then Mays, slowed down during the later years of their careers. The Twins’ Harmon Killibrew was a dark horse candidate, but he also fell short over the course of time.

Aaron just plugged along, never hitting more than 47 home runs in a year, but his career didn’t tail off. He hit home run number 715 in his 21st season and was immediately assailed by of an increasing deluge racist death threats, hate mail and calls. Increasing, that is, because the vitriol had begun in earnest during the off season as racist baseball fans realized he was on the cusp of overtaking the beloved home run record.

“I didn’t read most of them, but I wanted to have them as reminders,” Aaron later wrote of his hate mail messages in his autobiography. “I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story.”

“I kept feeling more and more strongly that I had to break the record not only for myself and for Jackie Robinson and for black people, but also to strike back at the vicious little people who wanted to keep me from doing it. All that hatred left a deep scar on me. 

“I was just a man doing something that God had given me the power to do, and I was living like an outcast in my own country. I had nowhere to go except home and to the ballpark, home and to the ballpark. I was a prisoner in my own apartment. … That whole period, I lived like a guy in a fishbowl, swimming from side to side with nowhere to go, watching everybody watch me.”

After he retired, Aaron joined the Atlanta Braves in the front office eventually becoming the vice president of player development. In 1992, he was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame with 98.2 percent of the ballots (second only to Ty Cobb). In 1999 Sporting News named him the fifth best baseball player of the 20th Century.

Dignity, grace and a sense of the positive impact they could make on their fellow African Americans marked the lives and careers of both Cicely Tyson and Hank Aaron.

Hank Aaron died on January 22, 2021; Cicely Tyson died on January 28, 2021.

May their memories be a blessing.



Copyright © 2021 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 02/04/21 12:50:19 -0500.

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