better keep your head
what your good book said
gonna come at last
Now your crosses
are burning fast
- "Southern Man" as sung by Neil Young
In 1787, the Founding Fathers hammered out the U.S. Constitution. Written in part by Southern slaveholders, the document spoke to that “peculiar institution.” The Founders wanted to end the practice of slavery, but they needed the South’s agrarian economy to grow the young country. The compromise was that slavery would remain; but after around 1800, no more slaves would be imported from Africa. The theory was that over time, the existing slaves would die of old age and the South would incrementally change their workforce according to capitalistic principles.
Slave importation was eventually stopped, but the plan "failed" because American slaves were clothed, fed, housed, treated medically, Christianized, allowed to marry and have families that were sometimes kept together. Instead of "dying off," the slaves grew in population, becoming a vital force in the Southern farm economy. Then, out of America’s Puritan Christian ethic grew the increasingly powerful abolitionist movement. Slavery was the driving issue behind the Civil War. When that war ended, so did the legal practice of slavery.
What followed was a century of hatred and recrimination. After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the Reconstruction was botched. The Ku Klux Klan rose in “righteous indignation.” For another century, Southern blacks lived a life of de facto slavery, confined by Jim Crow laws to a segregated world of “whites” and “colored” drinking fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, hotels, and, of course, schools. These laws were legitimized by the Democratic Party, which dominated Southern politics and supported the sordid practice.
The pride of the South was its colleges, ranging from venerable private institutions such as Vanderbilt to public colleges like Alabama and Mississippi. No black man or woman dared enter these hallowed halls.
After World War II, the U.S. Army de-segregated. In 1954, the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision ruled that segregation of public high schools (and by extension, at least in theory, colleges) according to race was illegal. President Dwight Eisenhower understood the Southern mind-set. He pursued an incremental approach to civil rights. Still, he attempted to bring forth legislation that would ensure black voting rights and other freedoms. Southern Democrats blocked his efforts.
In 1963, Vivian Malone and James Hood entered the University of Alabama, becoming the first blacks to do so. Governor George Wallace countered their entrance. Wallace made his celebrated “stand” and his infamous “segregation today, segregation forever” speech. A similar incident occurred at the University of Mississippi, where a courageous African-American named James Meredith braved hatred to pursue higher education.
Black civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had begun the bold practice of staging marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations in the heart of Dixie. He lead the 1955–56 boycott of the Montgomery bus lines. In 1963, he wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” following a large-scale protest in that city. In the same year, he led the March on Washington, where he made his famed “I have a dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1964, King fought for black voter registration by leading the Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He was jailed. His supporters, white and black, met with violence. Blood filled the streets. King insisted on maintaining the movement, in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, as one of non-violent revolution.
President John Kennedy made tentative steps toward legal integration. When he was murdered in 1963, an unlikely torchbearer emerged. President Lyndon Johnson, from Texas, ushered in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The South was still widely Democrat. They opposed it widely. Republicans, however, stepped up and helped pass the law.
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, African-American athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos finished first and third in the 200-meter dash. They raised black-gloved fists during "The Star-Spangled Banner.” Both were suspended and thrown out of the Olympic Village. Both athletes had been approached by African-American Berkeley sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards in an effort to boycott the games. Many black athletes, including UCLA basketball All-American Lew Alcindor, joined the boycott.
In 1968, Richard Nixon began the tightrope act that helped transform Southern politics. He formed a delicate coalition of Republicans and supporters of Wallace who wanted their vote to count. His “Southern strategy” resulted in his election to the Presidency. Eventually, this provided the impetus the GOP needed to husband Dixie back into the mainstream.
In 1892 William Henry Lewis became the first black football player at Harvard. He was a two-time All-American.
Fritz Pollard, a black man, played in the 1916 Rose Bowl for Brown and made All-American. The New York Times described him as “a player of such brilliancy as illuminated the gridiron about every half dozen years . . .”
Another African-American, Paul Robeson played at Rutgers in the 1920s. He later became a controversial singer, actor and moutpiece for Communism, apparently until a visit to the U.S.S.R. opened his eyes to the evils of it, leading to a reported death bed reversal.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, blacks made enormous strides in college football. Syracuse stars Jim Brown and Ernie Davis made their marks. Occasionally, Southern teams played integrated squads in bowl games, always with controversy and fan resistance. These contests were almost never south of the Mason-Dixon line. Great black athletes from the South and East filled out college rosters in the Pacific 8 and Big 10 Conferences. Michigan State played the famous 1966 “game of the century” vs. Notre Dame with a black quarterback, Jimmy Raye, and an All-American black defensive end named Bubba Smith, who hailed from Texas.
In 1966, basketball coach Don Haskins fielded an all black starting five at Texas Western University (now the University of Texas-El Paso). He took Texas Western all the way to the NCAA tournament. His opponent was a legendary, albeit racist, coach named Adolph Rupp, whose Kentucky team dominated the pre-UCLA and John Wooden era, but was now finding itself left behind. When Haskins’s team won, the “old order” was upended.
Birmingham, Alabama was nicknamed “Bombingham” after the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Four little black girls lost their life. Condoleeza Rice, who would become the Secretary of State, was growing up in Birmingham at the time and knew one of the girls.
It was “acts like these set Alabama apart in its savagery in the eyes of the country,” Chris McNair, the father of the youngest bombing victim, was quoted saying by writer Don Yaeger.
University of Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and members of the board of trustees had been in Bear’s second-story office in a building on the corner, where they witnessed Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door,” which occurred in Tuscaloosa the same year as the bombings.
Bryant was the child of sharecroppers. His nickname, “Bear,” came from his teenage years when he wrestled a black bear at a local fair in rural Arkansas.
“Bryant literally is the American dream,” said Taylor Watson, curator of the Paul W. Bryant Museum. “He understood that it all involved hard work.”
“Coach Bryant saw no difference between black kids and white kids,” said Allen Barra, author of The Last Coach: A Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant. “I think this goes back to his youth growing up in Morro Bottom.”
Indeed, Bryant had been raised on the “wrong side of the tracks,” as the saying goes, but in 1963 he was seen as part of the white establishment. If at this point in his life he saw “no difference” between the races, he was not somebody counted on as an ally by black folks.
He had been a star end opposite Don Hutson, playing in the 1935 Rose Bowl. He coached at Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M before returning to ‘Bama in 1958.
In 1959, Alabama faced Penn State in the Liberty Bowl. Bryant was criticized for facing an integrated Nittany Lion team with five blacks. Local "citizen's groups" in Tuscaloosa objected. Alabama lost the game, 7–0.
During the next 11 years, there was little improvement in racial opportunity for athletes in the South. Wake Forest brought in a token black player. Lester McClain was a black wingback at Tennessee from 1968–70. But state laws precluded segregation in certain cases.
Richmond Flowers Sr. became a foil for Governor Wallace’s segregationist views. As Alabama’s Attorney General, he prosecuted the KKK. But when he ran for governor against Wallace’s wife, Cornelia (who ran because her husband faced term limits), he was badly beaten. His son, Richmond Flowers Jr., was known as the “fastest white boy alive.” An Alabama prep track and football star, he engendered more hatred for the family by spurning the University of Alabama in favor of Tennessee.
“I really wanted to get out of Alabama and get it behind me,” sportswriter Don Yaeger quoted Flowers staying. After starring at Tennesee, Flowers embarked on a pro career starting with the Dallas Cowboys.
Still, Bryant did not share the racist views of many of his fellow Alabamians. He knew that through education would come understanding. He had seen it in his own life.
Wallace was a political chameleon. He originally campaigned for black votes in the style of Earl and Huey Long, the demagogic Louisiana political brothers who spurred the “populist” movement during the New Deal. Wallace lost a gubernatorial election to a strict segregationist, John Patterson in 1958. He vowed “never to be out-n—ed again." He became the most strident voice of segregation in the 1960s. Later he decided to change his segregationist stance in anticipation of the 1972 elections. In the meantime, Bryant monitored these issues, as had new university president David Matthews.
“Segregation was the law,” emphasized former Alabama player, assistant coach, and later Mississippi State head coach Sylvester Croom. “It was a violent time then.”
A documentary detailing Bryant's career, airing in the mid-1990s, showed footage purportedly from 1970 or perhaps earlier of Coach Bryant saying blacks did not have the necessary attributes, at that time, to play big time college football in the South.
However, Bryant left himself an out. He based his opinion not solely on black football skills, but on their ability to handle the academic coursework. This would indicate that he was concerned with their social treatment and felt that the public schools failed to provide adequate education for them. Bryant, ever the politician, was mainly playing to his base constituency, which was white and segregationist. In truth, he had already taken steps to effectuate change. To those who knew Bryant well, he was never racist. Apparently he put on a different face for his varied friends, associates, and players.
On July 2, 1969, U. W. Clemon, then a Birmingham civil rights lawyer, “inherited” a lawsuit on behalf of 11 black people against Bryant and the University of Alabama, specifically with regard to the school’s lack of athletic scholarship offers to African-Americans. One year later Bryant testified “three or four years ago we began looking in the state and this was prior to the time when they started blacks and whites playing one another. And our thinking was that <if> any good ones came along, we certainly didn’t want them to get away, and if we wanted to start, we wanted to start with Alabama boys.”
Bryant kept a list of the best players, which he protected for fear of “Auburn knowing who we are after.” Clemon stated that while taking Bryant’s deposition, he did not sense that the man was a racist. He said he had taken the depositions of many racists and had a “feel” for such a thing. Bryant noted several black prospects in the state, but matter-of-factly noted that each had “gotten away,” recruited by another program, lost for one reason or another in the way that any blue chipper might be scooped up by a rival. The deposition listed some 93 pages of these kinds of incidents; lack of academic qualifications, lost to Grambling, family said no, plucked up by a Western program . . .
The case was dismissed, but oddly both sides had made their point. The game vs. USC game was by that time scheduled for a couple months away; Wilbur Jackson was in school, John Mitchell would soon be recruited, and the times they were a-changin’.
Bryant had won national championships in the preceding decade. He coached two of the game’s most popular personalities, Joe Namath and Kenny Stabler. He knew how to harness these kinds of players.
“In the South, of course, being on the wrong side of slavery has a tough memory,” said Taylor Watson in the 2006 College Sports Television documentary Tackling Segregation. “ . . . It was hard to forget about the politics of race in the South . . . Alabama doesn’t have a lot to be proud of, but Alabama football was something we could be proud of.”
They were proud, but the fact that he won with all-white teams perpetuated racist notions.
“And there were avowed racists roaming this land, and they could all point to the all-white team of Alabama as vindication for their theory that you don’t have to have integration, integration won’t work, and we can do it without getting blacks involved,” stated Clemon.
But the racial make-up of Bryant’s teams posed problems despite their success on the field of play. In 1966, the Stabler-led Tide ran the table, finishing undefeated with a 34-7 victory over Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl. Despite this, they finished third in the national rankings. Notre Dame and Mic higan State had tied each other, and neither went toa bowl, yet they both finished ahead of Alabama.
“When it comes right down to it, many people have speculated that sportswriters and the wire service polls were biased against Alabama.” Is the “official” history according to the Paul W. Bryant Museum column on the 1966 season. “After all, this was the Alabama of George Wallace, ‘Bull’ Connor’s police dogs and fire hoses, and the Montgomery bus boycotts among other things.”
“I suppose,” Bryant said of the 1966 snub, “by then, the voters were tired of seeing us up there, and hearing Bryant brag on his quick little boys.”
On November 19, 1961 Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Birmingham was “the place where when they say ‘Evening Dress,’ they mean a bed sheet with eyeholes.” Alabama needed to integrate before they were considered a “legitimate national champion,” which they were that season. They also needed to play north of the Mason-Dixon Line, a fact accentuated by the fact that due to a scheduling conflict, they had filled their open date in 1966 with Louisiana Tech, which impressed nobody.
Alabama should “change the lyrics <of ‘Dixie’> ever so slightly like ‘do the folks keep segregatin’ – till I cai’nt win no polls . . . Old Bear is tired of winning the magnolia championship. He wants to play some modern football,” Murray wrote after the 1966 polls were released.
The 1966 poll snub has been attributed to revulsion over Alabama politics, but there are other factors. In 1964, the Tide “won” an illegitimate national championship when the Associated Press awarded it to them, but their subsequent 21-17 loss to Texas in the Orange Bowl has led historians to revise that year’s real winner to the deserving Razorbacks of Arkansas. Bryant was right in assessing that the voters were indeed “tired” of seeing Alabama win it all, and the ’66 vote was also a “correction” of the flawed ’64 “national championship.”
Furthermore, the all-white 1969 Texas Longhorns would – with the imprimatur of President Richard Nixon’s “blessing” - win the national championship over the Joe Paterno’s unbeaten, integrated Penn State Nittany Lions, so the argument that social pathos entirely dominated the 1966 polls is not fully accurate. The “Catholic vote” favoring Notre Dame was at least as prevalent a factor.
However, after Ken Stabler’s departure, ‘Bama declined in the late 1960s, barely maintaining a winning record. Schools with black players—USC, UCLA, Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan—were among the dominant programs of the era. The Southeastern Conference was not mediocre, but they were not the top league by any means.
Bryant knew that if anybody could integrate college football in Alabama, he was the man. He and a minority of others in the South began to see that if he wanted to continue his winning ways, then black athletes needed to be brought in.
“Negro players in the Southeastern Conference games are coming,” read an enlarged, highlighted text in a major article quoting Bryant in a 1965 edition of Look magazine. “We’re not recruiting Negro athletes; that’s a policy decision for others to make . . .” the coach added.
Behind the scenes, it was around this very time that Bryant was getting to know John McKay, who he spent time with at a summer high school football camp in California run by a coach named Bob Troppmann. It was at those camps where the seeds of the 1970 game and integration were being discussed.
“We probably didn’t know at the time that segregation had lost its hold because it had been a way of life for so long,” said Dr. David Mathews, a professor at Alabama in the 1960s and eventually university president.
Furthermore, Bryant knew his team was not going to be strong in 1970. Some have questioned whether the 1970 USC-Alabama game was scheduled specifically to integrate the Bear’s program.
“In order to regain national prestige, Bryant knew he needed to beat national powers,” stated Allen Barra. “Southern Cal was perfect. They were already there. They had Heisman Trophy winners. He and John McKay were friends.”
“I have no question my mind that it was all planned by Coach Bryant,” said Croom.
“Sports are a vehicle for change in this country, because you’re looking at heroes,” said Barra. “You’re looking at black men and white men with their arms around each other, cheering.”
“We realized we needed bigger, stronger, faster players,” said Pat Dye, an assistant on Bryant’s staff in 1970. “And the majority of bigger, stronger, faster players were black.”
“I think it was coming, and Coach Bryant was allowing it to happen, slowly,” said All-American lineman John Hannah. “I wouldn’t be surprised that in the back of his mind, he saw the success of Southern Cal’s stellar African-American athletes and saw this as an opportunity.”
“It was just another game to me at first,” said Charles Young. “But the closer we got to the game, you began to realize the ramifications of the game. We were going not on the fields of Gettysburg, but we were going on the Legion Field. What was transpiring was two different cultures, two different ideologies, and it had to be demonstrated on that playing field so Bear Bryant can get done what he wanted to get done. So he took it to a stage. What better stage than a football field?”
“We can’t beat them this year but we can beat them next year,” said Bryant, indicating that he was spinning perhaps two or three record at the same time. He had scheduled not just a 1970 game at Legion Field, but a follow-up game at the L.A. Coliseum for 1971.
This book tells the story of how this legendary coach made the most of the scheduling of a football game played on the 12th of September 1970: One Night, Two Teams, and the Game That Changed A Nation.
This book tells the story of both teams from each one’s perspective as well as from a journalistic standpoint. These chapters also tell the overall story, based on interviews with many characters and observers of the era, as well as the independent study of history. This is not the kind of revisionism that so many college students are subjected to. Instead, the true story is told. This book uses a football game as a metaphor for a changing America, tying the events before, during, and after September 12, 1970, with what Ronald Reagan used to colorfully describe as the “sweep of history.”
To understand the present, we must understand the past. This is the template that describes how we came to be what we are. De-segregation did not occur in a vacuum. It was the result of 3,000 years of philosophy. The heavyweights of Western civilization are responsible, despite revisionism, for the successes of America. Those heavyweights—Plato, Lincoln, Gandhi, Dr. King, and most importantly Jesus Christ—are given their just due in this unique work, which appeals to both history buffs and football fans.
What happened that Saturday in 1970 can be described as a tipping point; all the events leading up to it made it happen, and all subsequent events flow from it. The game was only part of the larger context of civil rights in America, but it remains perhaps the starkest evidence, and impetus, of change.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism