How Civil Rights Came To SEC Football

During a recent "60 Minutes" interview President-elect Barack Obama's proposal of a college football playoff model to decide the national champion was applauded by all political persuasions. Not even his suggestion to wield influence to create such a system was met with a whimper of discernible public protest--a milestone considering the pandemonium of partisanship from the recent election.

On the contrary, HBO's documentary entitled "Breaking The Huddle," premiering Tuesday (10 p.m. EST, 9 central time) and airing repeatedly in the months of December and January, explores the constant political conflict congruent to the integration of college football. Articulate and poignant accounts by living pioneers, coaches, historians, journalists, politicians, parents and former students chronicle the struggles endured resulting in cultural change for the 13-state region's three major conferences – Atlantic Coast, Southeastern and Southwest.

"It's very emotional and powerful and highlights the story that should be told," said Alabama native Keith Dunnavant a participating journalist in the HBO project.

The evolutionary integration process on screen was cleverly advanced as progress was metaphorically segmented into four quarters beginning in the mid 1950's and ending in the early 1970's. Images of police attack dogs and fire hoses ordered by Birmingham's Public Safety Commissioner "Bull" Connor to quell protest marchers in conjunction with the venomous words of politicians and grand wizards must be agonizing for Southerners to relive in an age that seems a galaxy removed but the Chinese proverb of a picture is worth a thousand words seems appropriate for a younger video driven generation who cannot fathom such racial divide.

Accompanied by Randy Newman's "Birmingham" lyrics, "You can travel across this entire land. There aint no place like Birmingham", the archival footage of the unrest in the Magic city succeeds contextually by documenting not only the peril of the individuals who pioneered the changes but also the prevailing sentiments of the status quo citizens.

African-American athletes during the Civil Rights era had the triple option of either venturing to other regions of the country already fielding integrated teams, attending an historically black institution, or blazing the trail as a pioneer in a lily-white conference. Thwarted in his attempts to be a Texas Longhorn, Bubba Smith of Beaumont bought a ticket as Dunnavant stated for "the football equivalent of the underground railroad" to play for Duffy Daughtery's Michigan State Spartans. Although people of color experienced increased social mobility north of the Mason-Dixon Line, cultural nirvana was not fully achieved at the Midwestern Big Ten University according to Smith. "Duffy had already told us you can't date any white girls."

Richmond native Willie Lanier briefly considered matriculating at Missouri but abandoned the thought of embarking on an uncertain journey as he enrolled at Morgan State University to play for Earl Banks. Middle-linebacker, historically occupied by a white player, was the position he played not only in college but throughout his NFL Hall of Fame career.

Border state University of Maryland was the first school in the South to integrate during the 1963 season. Darryl Hill, already the first African-American playing for the Naval Academy on the freshman team with Roger Staubach, was contacted by then freshman Terrapin Coach Lee Corso about transferring. Threats were made by league members Clemson and South Carolina to leave the conference if Hill was allowed to compete. He persevered by setting a then ACC single game record with 10 receptions in front of a hostile Clemson crowd one afternoon. Denied entrance to the stadium, Clemson's President Robert Edwards intervened on behalf of Hill's mother and invited her to watch the game from his box so she could witness her son's exploits.

Hayden Fry consented to be the head coach of SMU after stipulating he would be allowed to recruit African-American players. Jerry LeVias of Beaumont courageously accepted the offer to be the first African-American football scholarship athlete in the now defunct Southwest Conference. Significant contributions during his sophomore season in 1966 led the Mustangs to their first conference championship in 18 years, but the emotional scars he suffered from teammates, foes and fans are still mending 40 years later.

In 1966, the SEC was the last conference to integrate when Kentucky granted scholarships to Nat Northington and Greg Page. Since freshmen were not eligible for the varsity, 1967 would be their first season to compete. Disclosed during the airing are the circumstances surrounding the duo and the subsequent reaction to the rarely publicized tragedy which occurred during the Wildcat's fall practice.

Prior to the SEC's color transformation, former Ole Miss player Frank Lambert recalls the surreal moment of Mississippi's Governor Ross Barnett speaking on a microphone from the fifty-yard line at halftime of the 1962 Kentucky game. Brazened by the stadium hysteria approving the governor's resistance to integration, Barnett calls President Kennedy and reneges on the previous agreement to enforce the Supreme Court's decision to admit the first African-American student, James Meredith. Nearly 20,000 federal troops assembled in Oxford to manage the tense situation for the inevitable registration of Meredith. Lambert was a young college student-athlete trying to understand the political ramifications for his Rebels team amidst the campus upheaval. "And in a sense our greatest fears are being realized. All of this political involvement is threatening our season, Lambert lamented. "You talk about politics taking over football and doing it all in the name of keeping an institution all white which meant keeping the football team all white."

Wide receiver Thomas Gossom, the first African-American athlete to graduate from Auburn University, expressed his views about being a pioneer. "The games we played were far more important than who won and who lost because all the black people in the state were counting on us. We were doing what they never had the chance to do but we were doing it as an extension of them. We were carrying all their hopes. It was all on us. It was always about more than a game."

Alabama's unavoidable collision course of football and politics is analyzed during the documentary. Coach Paul Bryant recognized the imminent changing competitive configuration of the game's athletes when he foreshadowed events in a November 1965 "Look" magazine story. "Negro players in Southeastern Conference games are coming," he stated. The religious fervor of gridiron glorification merged with the prevailing race excluding politics preached by Alabama's Governor Wallace presented him with a conundrum. Noted Bryant biographer Dunnavant elaborates about his ill-fated attempts to schedule integrated teams for a home game despite the objections from statewide factions.

Even though his Alabama had competed at bowl venues against the integrated teams of Penn State, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado, Bryant seized the opportunity to schedule USC, a powerhouse cross-sectional opponent after the addition of an eleventh game was approved by the NCAA in January of 1970. One note not mentioned in the documentary is that former Tennessee All-America linebacker Jackie Walker who returned a bobbled pass for a touchdown, joined with teammates Lester McClain and Andy Bennett as the first African-Americans to compete against Alabama at Legion Field in 1969.

Although Bryant is presented in the telecast as a brilliant strategist willingly led to the Trojan slaughter with the ulterior motive of winning over the hearts and minds of those Alabama patrons vehemently opposed to integrating their revered football team, a rarely publicized fact not part of the narration tends to refute that notion. Taylor Watson, curator at the Paul W. Bryant museum researched Charles Land of the Tuscaloosa News February 1, 1970 report stating, "The Crimson Tide is going to play an extra football game against USC on Sept 12 in Birmingham's Legion field. Alabama will return the visit in 1971, playing USC on Friday night September 10th, at LA." Additionally he wrote, "Plans were finalized Saturday by Alabama head coach-AD Bryant, USC AD Jesse Hill & John McKay. Bryant is on a recruiting trip to the west coast." "The main thing was that we felt this would make a great trip for our players," said Bryant. "We would have preferred to play the first game out there, but it didn't fit their schedule that way."

Perhaps the dialogue from the John Wayne movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" applies. "When the legend becomes fact print the legend." There is no more mythical stage in all of sports than Southern football and no larger legendary figure than the hounds-tooth fedora-wearing Bryant but to promote the idea he orchestrated a devastating defeat belies the character who proclaimed "I aint nothing but a winner". The USC game was very important for race relations in Alabama and certainly Bryant reaped dividends from the contest.

Although Alabama was not the first in the South to integrate its football team, they were the paradigm program being viewed intently by the rest of the nation due to the politically created storm hovering over the state and the winning dynasty of Bryant. Promoted as the "Football Capital of the South", the 1970 USC game culminating at Birmingham's Legion Field was a fitting place to eradicate an injustice.

"Here it is Legion Field. Just a few blocks from where "Bull" Connor pushed Alabama a little deeper into the darkness," opined Dunnavant. "This is a great moment for Alabama because this is a moment when Alabama transcended its history."

The gradual osmosis of integration accelerated three years after signing Wilbur Jackson, an Alabama freshman scholarship spectator in the stands of Legion Field that evening, as one-third of Alabama's starting lineup was African-American by 1973.

During the current political year we have heard vigorous debates about the bridge to nowhere and bridge loans to businesses but no American today would challenge the racial chasm bridged by the last 50 years. Progress has occurred to where in the fall of 2008 America's election of an African-American to the Presidency fostered celebration in the streets and the first African-American head football coach in the Southeastern Conference, Sylvester Croom, who listened to the USC-Alabama game on radio, resigned with little fanfare.

The tumultuous times depicting the depths of darkness overcoming the resistance to integration serves as a symbolic contrast to the zenith of light shining brightly today with limitless opportunity. The last scene highlighting the 2008 Crimson Tide running on the field to the sounds of "Yea, Alabama!" and the close camera view of the midfield coin toss at Bryant-Denny Stadium amidst a pioneer is a climatic ending to a story worth watching.

"When I look around and I see 11 African-American football players on defense and I look over there and there is a black quarterback, it makes me feel good just because I know where it was and where it is now," proclaims Kentucky's first African-American captain Wilbur Hackett, Jr. After viewing the documentary, one is reminded of the words of wisdom uttered from an aging woman's hospital death bed in the "Designing Women" television episode:

"As my Papa used to say. We ain't what we should be. We ain't what we gonna be but at least we ain't what we was."


Progress is the road infinitely traveling through generations and that September night in Birmingham it stopped long enough to be remembered forever.

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