“ONE NIGHT, TWO TEAMS: ALABAMA VS. USC AND THE GAME THAT CHANGED A NATION”
Marv Goux, among others, said that Sam Cunningham “did more for civil rights in three hours than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.” King himself, in his famous “let freedom ring” speech, had quoted from the great Civil War “Battle Hymn of the Republic”:
“MINE EYES HAVE SEEN THE GLORY OF THE COMING OF THE LORD.”
King’s dream has been realized. What he started was advanced as much by Sam Cunningham and the 1970 USC-Alabama game as any event that occurred following King’s death.
But the game and its aftermath has had a profound effect on America that could not have been predicted at the time. Not only has black America seen a vast expansion of its rights, but the political landscape of the country has changed dramatically. What would have been most unpredictable, and what is most ironic, is that the beneficiaries of civil rights advances are not just the blacks in the South, but the whites in the South, the conservative movement, and the Republican Party. The man who might have predicted this was Mahatma Gandhi. He had encouraged the British to “join” him, because the righteous elevation of a group of human beings is the elevation of all human beings. The whites who saw a future of race-mixing and the lowering of standards - and their are still many who hold the racist views, to be sure - instead found themselves elevated by the advancement of their region. Today, the South is truly risen. This is not a hackneyed phrase. They are a cultural, economic and political juggernaut.
Bear Bryant reiterated the sentiment that Cunningham had done more than King, John McKay agreed with it, and over the years these words have become almost apocryphal. But Cunningham himself was never comfortable with them. He is a humble man, and while John Papadakis tacitly felt the Goux comment was true, building Sam up as an “American hero,” Sam himself did not quite see it that way.
Sam may not have seen himself as a man of destiny, chosen almost in a Moses-like manner to lead his people to, if not the Promised Land, then to a better land. But he always knew he was a vessel of God. It could have been C.R. Roberts. It could have been Jack Johnson. But Sam, more than anybody in the American civil rights struggle, was in precisely the right place at the right time. The real credit he deserves was that he was the right man. It is instructive to consider that the “quiet revolution” that gentle Sam started (or ended, depending on the way one looks at it) was more effective than the orations of the loudmouth Muhammad Ali.
As for doing “more” than Dr. King, neither Sam nor any serious student of this era of American history would agree. What did happen was that King and his movement had built up the dominoes. They were poised, ready to fall. It was Sam who did the tipping. The “wrong” man would have either tipped them too much or not enough. Ali would have danced about, getting in people’s faces, telling anybody who listened that “I am the greatest of ALL TIMES!!!” He would have set the whole thing back for years. Sam did it just right.
What is really not in dispute - and by Sports Illustrated ranking the event the “sixth most important event in American sports history” they gave credence to this notion - is that there is a truly defined demarcation line, and that line is September 12, 1970. There is America and race relations before that date, the game played on that date, and America’s race relations after the event.
The forces of societal evolution that came about when Sam “sparked” this beautiful, quiet revolution have been nothing less than cataclysmic, and explain much of our political landscape, especially in the aftermath of George W. Bush and the Republican landslides of 2004. Black civil rights advancements had always seemed to be the province of liberal America, and if the dream was ever realized, it would be liberals who profited from it politically. The fact that they have not, at least not the way one might have predicted in 1970, is a matter of great frustration to them.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism