‘You cannot play’

Members of the 1955 Cannon St. All-Star baseball team listen to head coach Benjamin Singleton (bottom far right) as they attended the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

John Rivers was 12 when he and 13 fellow members of a Charleston Little League team were told they could not play in the World Series.

They were excluded on a technicality, but the act of organized racism of an all-white league had shunned them for the color of their skin and left them with no one to play with.

They were just young boys — children, really — when the chasm of injustice opened before them in all its plainness, in a stark light that could never again be shielded or forgotten.

“It was pivotal and life-changing,” Rivers recalled on a recent day.

The story of the 1955 Cannon Street All-Stars has been well documented and told. Yet, in a country where the killing of black men is ordinary and racism continues to systemically cleave the justice system, education, housing and banking, their story continues to resound.

Two of the young players who served in the military and Rivers, who is the team president and whose father served in the Army for 25 years, will participate next week in a symposium that is part of the Patriots Point Maritime & Naval Museum’s “Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things” education series, part of Black History Month.

Part of the conversation will revolve around the lives of black veterans who served and sacrificed for the country that discriminated against them.

The lives of the young Charleston boys who were denied the right to play on that field some 60 years ago spread out and took many different paths: Rivers went on to become a successful architect; others entered law enforcement, business and education; and some served in the military. Each found his way in the country’s often hostile landscape.

But the memory bonds them and animates them, still.

Rivers still views the experience as a defining moment of his life. On the positive side, he said, it gave him a taste of leadership and sportsmanship and of his potential for success. He was a good player, a short stop.

On the side of denied opportunity, he said, “It instilled in me to never let that happen again: to never let your dream be taken away ... and that you can overcome adversity with tenacity. That continued to operate in me for the rest of my life.”

For those who may not have heard the story, in the summer of 1955, the Cannon Street YMCA Little League All-Stars team, the best of the best of Charleston’s black Little League, was looking forward to playing the other chartered Little League programs in South Carolina in a tournament that would take the winner to the Little League Baseball World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

The other teams, however, were all white, and refused to play them. National baseball headquarters told the teams that they would have to play or forfeit, but local baseball officials told the national league to mind its own business and pursued the boycott.

Because of the other teams’ refusal to play, the Cannon Street team won the tournament by default, but because they had not ascended to victory by actually playing other teams, they were disqualified from the finals.

The team was invited to the World Series anyway, some under the impression that they would play, others already knowing they would be disappointed.

“We were kids and they protected us from a lot of this,” said Vermort Brown, who was 8 at the time.

“We understood later,” said Leroy Major, 12 at the time, “that it’s adults who mess up the world, not the kids.”

They warmed up with batting practice on the field, and then they were told to take a seat.

“The crowd started stomping their feet in the bleachers and chanting, ‘Let them play, let them play,’” said Brown.

But the team was ordered off the field and eventually returned to Charleston. There was not a smile to be found, said Brown.

“I was very sad, like all the players,” said Rivers. “When we entered the eighth grade a week or two later, just off this historic trip ... everyone was very silent. No one talked about it or celebrated. ... There was no bragging. Everyone was just quiet, and I think that illustrates the sadness. That spoke volumes.”

The white teams went on to form their own white league, the Dixie League, and put on their own tournament to exclude black children. Rivers and his friends, older now, played here and there in the neighborhoods of Charleston, but eventually they moved on with their lives, some in the area and others fanning out across the country.

One player became a general contractor in Washington; one entered law enforcement; another became an entrepreneur. A few moved to Atlanta, a few to New York.

William “Buck” Godfrey became a high school English teacher, author and coach (the “winningest” football coach in the history of DeKalb County, Georgia, inducted in the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame).

Rivers became a successful draftsman and eventually a licensed architect, first in New York and then Atlanta. He is in a tiny minority in a profession that is overwhelmingly white, emerging and surviving in a rigorously licensed profession by sheer determination and without a club of peers. His move north, he said, allowed him to escape the worst of southern racism, and afforded him a life that as a black man felt almost normal.

Still he admits the experience on that field shaped him.

“Those were abnormal conditions for any kid to experience day in and day out. It is a form of terror. ... It is psychologically unhealthy to be told that you are inferior. ... It impacts your view of your place in America, in the world,” said Rivers, now 73.

“Those of us who did overcome had the nurturing advice of people who continued to tell us every day, you can overcome.

“If we had not been protected by the warmth of our parents and leaders and teachers from the indignities of racism, I don’t know,” his voice trailed off. “You carry those for life. It becomes part of your DNA.”

But, he said, “Growing up under Jim Crow and segregation taught me to never take ‘no’ as an answer and to never change my goals and dreams for anyone.”

Teammate David Middleton left Charleston for college in Greensboro, N.C.. He found his way to New York where he worked in the railroads and construction for some 40 years. He is retired in Atlanta now, and 72.

His voice warms with affection speaking of his team, ever-bonded, he said, and it tinges with sadness talking about the cake and ice cream they got at the Little League World Series in lieu of the trophies the other teams received.

“It was hurtful being at that age, and you never forget that,” he said. But he said he takes the Little League experience in the context of “colored water fountains” and “sitting in the back of the bus.”

“There was segregation. You have to deal with that situation and it’s been a long time,” he said.

Major and Brown, meanwhile, both of whom still live in Charleston, joined the military, and their service is the subject of the Patriots Point symposium.

“We think it’s important to point out that African Americans and other minorities have never shied away from defending a country that sometimes did not provide them with equal protection,” said Mac Burdette, executive director of Patriots Point.

But each man lived the experience singularly.

Brown looks upon his 30-year service in the Army and subsequently the Army Reserves as opportunity. He entered the military hoping it would lead him to civil engineering; it took him to work in logistics and transportation within the Army and, later, work in production and inspections at Lockheed Martin.

“After we grew up, we understood what had happened,” said Brown. “Certainly we’d get emotional about it ... we all had feelings about what happened to us, but that did not stop us from obtaining skills and getting good jobs later.”

Looking back on the Little League experience, he said, “I didn’t come out holding malice. ... We all came out pretty good in the end.”

Major, after graduating from Burke High School as most of the players did, entered Savannah State University. In 1965, he was drafted and he joined the Marine Corps for a nearly four-year term. He views his service as a duty — nothing more, nothing less — about which he feels at peace.

“In my family we didn’t protest many things. The neighborhood was our resource and we believed in Jesus Christ,” said Major, 73. “I am an American and I need to do my part. You have the job you have to do ... and I still think the Little League experience enhanced my life.”

Major went on to teach at James Simons Elementary and Rivers Middle schools for 30 years. He said Psalm 37 is still his motto.

“Do not fret because of those who are evil,” he said. “I still live by that. If you send out love, it is going to come back.”

Augustus Holt, the ’55 Cannon Street All-Stars’ historian, continues to fight for recognition for the team. He said BET has agreed to make a movie about the team, and he is still gathering signatures for a petition for the team to be honored at the White House, albeit belatedly, for the award they should have had a chance to win. Eleven of the 14 players survive.

Rivers, meanwhile, believes the stories of that time still serve a purpose and should never be forgotten.

“I look at it now philosophically, and it’s the only way I can look at it,” he said. “But I tell young people, you need to know your history. You need to know where you come from.”

His advice to black youth: “Do not be afraid to dream big; follow your passions, as long as they are legal; do not be discouraged by naysayers; and do not let anyone steal your dream.”