Peach Bowl: Players get a civil rights history lesson before game day

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(CNN) — Never underestimate an athlete’s ability to move the dial on social justice issues. That’s the message college football players received during their pilgrimage to Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Players from the University of Alabama and the University of Washington were in Atlanta Tuesday night for their New Year’s eve duel at the Peach Bowl. But days before the big game, the players got a history lesson at the church where King was baptized, where he preached and where his funeral was held.

The Crimson Tide and the Washington Huskies sat in the pews and listened intently as former mayor Andrew Young and civil rights leader Xemona Clayton delivered words of inspiration.

“If you had to choose who had more of an impact on the desegregation of Georgia, Martin Luther King or Herschel Walker? Herschel would probably win because he made Georgia No. 1,” said Young, who worked alongside King in their fight for racial equality.

Young’s point is poignant because in the 1980s, long after landmark Supreme Court cases, Walker “did more to desegregate the South more than they probably know because football is our religion,” Young said.

Clayton echoed Young’s sentiments about respecting the past and the need to stay involved.

The civil rights leader said she was angry when she learned the turnout for black voters had decreased for the 2016 presidential election. Clayton implored the players to go to their university library and watch the video of fellow panelist C.T. Vivian protesting and praying on the courthouse steps in Alabama to help African-Americans get the right to vote. She spoke of how Vivian was brutally beaten.

“If you ever see the footage, you’ll never sleep in again on Election Day,” she said. “You’re sitting here… because blood was shed. Sweat, tears made it possible for us to even sit together.”

Then came her call to action.

“There’s some change that still needs to happen in our society. There’s an old saying, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ You know what I say? ‘If it ain’t broke, break it so you’ll have something to do.’ There’s always something to do.”

Later, players from each team shared their reactions.

“The biggest thing I got from today is to keep progressing always and never stop the flow of progress,” said Washington Huskie Brandon Beaver.

“It couldn’t have been better honestly,” said Alabama’s Jonathan Allen. “Just hearing about their personal experiences and what they’ve been through. I thought it was really cool and I enjoyed it.”