Roberto Clemente facts most don’t know: Part 2–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Vic Power
a whites-only gas station. Roberto despised the humiliation, internalizing it as if it were his own. Power tried to calm Clemente down with his wit and humor by recalling a conversation he had with a server at a Jim Crow-esque restaurant. “We don’t serve Negroes,” said the waitress. Power was relieved and replied, “That’s okay. I don’t eat Negroes. I just want rice and beans.”As a Spanish-speaking black man from Puerto Rico, Clemente battled against discrimination from day one
in America and was outspoken about the inequities
he faced. During his first seven years at Pirates Spring Training in Florida, he was not afforded the comfortable amenities a downtown hotel offered. Instead, Clemente was confined to living with a black family in the Dunbar Heights section of Fort Myers. When the Pirates held its annual spring golf tournament at the local country club, Roberto and the other black teammates were excluded.
As if that was not enough disrespect, while his white teammates dined at roadside restaurants on Grapefruit League road trips, Clemente would have to remain on
the team bus. Fed up with such atrocities, he finally coerced the Pittsburgh Pirates front office management
to allow the black players to travel in their own station wagon. Clemente said that enduring the unjust racial divide during spring training was like being in prison. Roberto Clemente’s admiration for
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his participation in the civil rights movement was spurred by the racism he experienced in the United States. During his professional career from 1954 to 1972, he saw significant change in both Major League Baseball and American society. Clemente was an intelligent and politically-charged activist who marched in the street protests of the 60′s and spent time with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. when the civil rights leader visited him at his farm in Puerto Rico. He
had a strong connection to King as
the humanitarian witnessed firsthand the black freedom struggle from the Montgomery Bus Boycotts to the urban ghetto rebellions and from
Rosa Parks to the Black Panthers. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star Roberto Clemente was devastated by the news. However, out of respect for the slain leader, he gathered up his teammates for a meeting to prevent the Pirates and Astros from opening their season on April 8th–the day before King’s burial. He convinced his fellow Pirates, which included 11 African-Americans, to stand with him in unity. As a result of his extraordinary call to action in honoring his fallen hero, Pirates 1968 Opening Day was postponed and moved back to April 10th in observance of King’s memorial service. Like Dr. King, Clemente was a passionate believer of social and economic justice. Clemente once said, “If you have the chance to make things better for people coming behind you and you don’t, you are wasting your time on earth.”
David Maraniss quotes Clemente about being warned before speaking out on American injustice in his 2005 biography of the Hall of Fame outfielder: “They say, ‘Roberto, you better keep your mouth shut because they will ship you back.’ [But] this is something
from the first day I said to myself: I am in the minority group. I am from the poor people.
I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So I am going
to be treated like a human being. I don’t want to be treated like a Puerto Rican, or a black, or nothing like that. I want to be treated like any person.” Clemente had a profound social conscience and drive for justice. Toward the end of his career, Clemente felt he had made some headway against prejudice. “My greatest satisfaction comes from helping to erase
the old opinion about Latin Americans and blacks,” he said.On April 3, 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech saying, “I would like to live a
long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight,
that we as a people will get to the promised land.” Clemente shared Dr. King’s personal fatalism and always believed that he would die before his time. His widow Vera remembered, “He always said he would die young that this was his fate.” Born on August 18, 1934 in Puerto Rico just outside of Carolina’s sugar cane fields–where today nearby stands a 30-foot-long cenotaph which encapsulates the life and death of the Puerto Rican legendary hero–Roberto Clemente boarded an ill-fated overweight DC-7 aircraft attempting to fly from San Juan to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua with relief supplies and died when the humanitarian mission flight went plunging into the sea shortly after take off on New Year’s Eve, 1972. Clemente’s body was never found so the cenotaph designed by José Buscaglia is a heartfelt tribute to the Puerto Rican hero. Traditionally, cenotaphs are funerary monuments dedicated to heroes whose bodies are not recovered from the field of battle. So the very genre of Buscaglia’s work honors Clemente as one who gave all for his country. In the center panel, the lamb in Roberto’s arms is the lamb from the Puerto Rican coat of arms. In his life and death, Roberto lifted Puerto Rican identity to a new level in the world. The monument’s inscription reads “Son of Carolina, Exemplary Citizen, Athlete, Philanthropist, Teacher, Hero of the Americas and the World. Believing the promised land was more than a vision, both Clemente and King sacrificed everything to help set into motion a righteous path toward peace, equality and justice for oppressed people throughout the world. On the door of the room Clemente used during Pirates Spring Training is a plaque that reads Roberto’s final wish: “I want to be remembered as a ballplayer who gave all he had to give.” Indeed, not only would that quote suffice as an appropriate epitaph but also accurately depicted the consummate good samaritan that Clemente was in being of service to all.