Integration of College Athletics

Wilbur Jackson Intercollegiate athletics first appeared on Alabama campuses in the late nineteenth century, when football quickly became the most popular team sport, trailed at some distance by baseball and basketball. Across the Deep South, competitive sports and all other aspects of higher education were rigidly segregated. When Alabama‘s all-white universities eventually began competing against northern schools, school officials consistently refused to play against any team with African American players, even if the games were held in the North. This policy of racial exclusion continued through the first six decades of the twentieth century. When the state’s historically white universities were finally desegregated by the mid-1960s, competition against integrated teams became acceptable. At the end of the decade, white coaches started to recruit Black players for their own teams. By the late 1970s, all previously white Alabama colleges fielded integrated athletic teams and many featured Black stars, reflecting one of the more sweeping social changes brought about by the civil rights movement.

John Mitchell During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the new sport of football spread from its origins at northeastern universities to colleges across the country. Football offered a powerful emotional appeal to young college men, one that transcended racial lines. The game’s physical demands and rough play appealed to those who were eager to prove their manliness, and the sport soon surpassed baseball in popularity. Students at what is now Auburn University (AU) and the University of Alabama (UA) formed their schools’ first intercollegiate football teams in 1892. At historically black Tuskegee Institute, principal Booker T. Washington‘s emphasis on vocational education did not conflict with the creation of a football team, which played its first game on January 1, 1894, as part of Emancipation Day festivities in Atlanta.

AU and UA soon emerged as the state’s elite athletic programs and maintained a rigid color line for all athletic competition. These schools and other southern colleges, however, occasionally scheduled high-profile games against better-known northern schools, contests that sometimes were complicated by the color line. One of the earliest examples of intersectional conflict resulting from racial policies came in 1907, when UA’s baseball team embarked on a long road trip through the northeastern United States. After the UA team arrived at the University of Vermont, team officials learned that the home team’s roster included two African Americans. Alabama Coach John H. Pollard demanded that the two players be excluded from the series. The Vermont coach refused, and Alabama forfeited the two contests and paid a $300 cancellation fee rather than participate in an integrated contest. Other northern schools were far more cooperative when playing southern teams. For example, Boston College benched black halfback Lou Montgomery for football games played against Auburn in 1939 and in 1940 in Boston.

Shug Jordan and Bear Bryant, 1975 Alabama and Auburn’s refusal to compete against even one black opponent lasted until 1959. That year, UA coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and university officials agreed to play in the Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia, even though opponent Pennsylvania State University had an African American athlete on its roster. Except for this game, both Alabama schools continued to avoid such matchups and eventually ended up playing only all-white southern teams. Such exclusion eventually threatened the two schools’ national status. Many Alabamians still believe that Gov. George C. Wallace‘s opposition to civil rights helped deny the University of Alabama a rare opportunity to play in the 1962 Rose Bowl and may have prompted sports writers to reject UA’s undefeated team as national champions in 1966. Growing concern over a diminished status on the national collegiate scene, coupled with the continuing enrollment of black undergraduates at Alabama and Auburn, eventually undermined opposition to integrated competition. Auburn hosted its first home football game against an integrated foe, Wake Forest University, in September 1966. The most famous integrated home game played by Alabama occurred in September 1970, when the University of Southern California squad, which included some 20 black players, handed UA an embarrassing 42-21 loss.

Henry Harris In 1967, the University of Kentucky fielded the first integrated varsity football team in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), prompting observers to question when other members of the SEC, including Auburn and Alabama, might recruit their first African American athletes. For most black Alabamians, a change in recruitment policy was long overdue, although some worried that the first black recruits at white colleges might be mistreated. Frustrated by the continuing exclusion of black players on the UA team, the school’s black student association filed a lawsuit in the spring of 1969, charging it with racial discrimination in athletics. Racial restrictions in the state’s athletic programs had already started to change by this time, however. In the summer of 1968, the white and black high school athletic associations merged pursuant to a court order, with limited competition between black and white high schools starting that fall. The integration of high school sports thus established a precedent that made it more acceptable for white college coaches to recruit minority athletes.

Wendell Hudson Auburn integrated its athletic program slightly ahead of Alabama, and basketball integration proceeded slightly ahead of football integration. In the spring of 1968, Auburn basketball coach Bill Lynn convinced Boligee high school star Henry Harris to become the university’s first black scholarship athlete. Some Auburn fans were quite unhappy about this historic development. When one member of the AU board of trustees criticized this change in policy at a board meeting, other trustees quickly defended Harris’s recruitment and similar efforts in football. The second African American to play varsity basketball in the SEC, Harris enrolled in the fall of 1968 and became something of a fan favorite during his career. Although Harris led an isolated life at Auburn during his first two years, several additional African American athletes eventually joined him on campus. At Alabama, Coach C. M. Newton signed Wendell Hudson from Birmingham to a scholarship one year after Harris enrolled at Auburn. At the end of his senior year in the spring of 1973, Hudson was voted the conference player of the year.

James Owens In football, the Alabama and Auburn coaching staffs began identifying promising Black high school prospects during the fall 1968 season. Halfback James Owens, from predominantly white Fairfield High School, soon caught the eye of several scouts. Eventually Owens selected Auburn and played on the varsity team from 1970 to 1972. The following year, Alabama signed Wilbur Jackson of Ozark to an athletic scholarship. Jackson was a member of the 1970 freshman team at the time of Alabama’s humiliating loss to the University of Southern California (USC), thus indicating that Bear Bryant had already committed himself to recruiting black athletes before the USC defeat. In the fall of 1971, Jackson and junior-college transfer John Mitchell joined the UA varsity, and the freshman team added three more African Americans, including future star Sylvester Croom. In 2003, Croom became the first Black head football coach in the Southeastern Conference, when he was hired by Mississippi State University. The various conference and national titles won by Bryant’s teams during the 1970s and the contributions made by Black players to this success helped win over most white Alabama fans who had initially opposed any racial change on the gridiron.

Sylvester Croom Jr. Integration of athletics was more than just the process by which African American athletes joined teams at elite white athletic programs such as Auburn and Alabama. Occasionally a white athlete enrolled at a historically black college as well. Apparently the first white player to compete for a black college in the state was offensive guard Joseph Malbouef of Detroit, Michigan, who played for the Tuskegee University football team from 1968 through 1971. Football and basketball games between historically black and historically white schools represented another dimension of athletic integration. In basketball, Huntington College and Tuskegee held what is thought to be the first basketball game between the state’s historically white and black colleges in 1969. In the fall of 1975, Tuskegee and the University of West Alabama (then known as Livingston University) staged the equivalent contest for college football inside the state.

Samford University Basketball Team, 1969 The integration of sports teams at the state’s small colleges and community colleges proceeded slightly faster than at the elite senior institutions. Unfortunately, the experiences of the racial pioneers and their coaches at these schools have rarely been recorded. At the start of the 1969-70 basketball season, Samford University added three African American junior-college transfers—Sherman Hogan, Otha Mitchell, and Billy Williams—to its basketball team. The following year, Greg Robinson joined the Birmingham-Southern College basketball squad. In the fall of 1966, Kenneth Strickland joined the Gadsden State Junior College basketball team as one of the first black basketball players at a previously white community college. There was occasional resistance to such changes on the local level. In one extreme case involving Northeast Junior College on Sand Mountain, Bill Elder, the basketball coach there, received numerous harassing telephone calls and a few death threats after integrating his 1971 and 1972 teams.

The integration of the state’s historically white athletic programs offered many African American athletes access to top-notch facilities and the opportunity to compete at the highest national level. It also had the unfortunate side effect of diminishing for several decades the level of competition available at the state’s historically black athletic programs. There were also concerns that some university athletic programs concentrated more on keeping their black athletes eligible to play than it did on encouraging them to complete their degrees. Nonetheless, integrated athletic teams served as symbols of racial progress within the state, provided useful models of interracial cooperation, and functioned as community institutions around which black and white Alabamians could unite despite their prior political differences and separate athletic pasts.

Additional Resources

Barra, Allen. The Last Coach: A Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

Martin, Charles H. “Hold That (Color) Line!: Black Exclusion and Southeastern Conference Football.” In Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement: White Supremacy, Black Southerners, and College Campuses, edited by Peter Wallenstein (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008).

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