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TAKING NOTE: What did Paul “Bear” Bryant have in common with Dr. Martin L. King Jr.?

Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr.

by Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr.

The 2018 football season is well underway. Pollsters have made their picks for the pre-season and schedules have been made and modified for the madness. Motorhomes, SUVs and grills have been prepared for travel. The tailgate parties, in many locales, have eclipsed the importance of the game itself. When it comes to the Southern Heritage Classic, tailgate slots in Tiger Lane sell out long before the seats in the stadium.

There is something majestic about the aroma of charcoal smoking beneath chicken, steaks, smoked sausages, hot dogs and burgers. When you mix the comradery with fan avidity and the revival of collegiate experiences to memory, there is a spontaneous burst of laughter that seems to never end. That is what football does to our culture.

Tailgating at the Southern Heritage Classic includes getting your groove on. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Across this nation, gatherings as described above will take place in every state. From little leagues to professional football games – the crowds will gather. Ethnic differences, class status, educational backgrounds, and even race will take second to the fan avidity for their teams. Very few, if any, of the rabid football fans have made the connection between the desegregation of collegiate football in the deep South and the modern Civil Rights Movement.

Prior to the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, black football players in the South knew they had few options to play college football. These limited options sent the best black players to historical black colleges and universities. During the segregated era, powerhouse football programs were developed at Tennessee State, Grambling, Southern University, Jackson State, Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, and others. To prove the quality of these players, all one has to do is review the pipeline from these HBCUs to the National Football League, American Football League, and the Canadian Football League.

Bob Hayes, the “Human Bullet” was a graduate of FAMU. Claude Humphrey played at Tennessee State. Walter Peyton made his mark at Jackson State. Doug Williams threw touchdown passes at Grambling before he won the Super Bowl MVP Award in 1988. The proof is in the players. There is no doubt, racial discrimination was the only disqualifier and was made illegal in 1964.

Paul “Bear” Bryant and Dr. Martin L. King Jr, both knew that if either were to succeed, segregation had to be ended. Dr. King conducted marches and protests to expose the inhumanity of racial discrimination. Paul Bryant saw the elite college teams of the North and West, as examples of what was to come. He knew if Alabama was to open its doors to black athletes, he had to expose the erroneous concepts of white supremacy and the value of integration.

Paul Bryant was keenly and painfully aware of the racial context of Alabama in 1964. George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, was an avowed racist who had declared on his 1963 Inaugural speech, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!”.

Paul “Bear” Bryant first used the gradual approach to (integrate Alabama football) by allowing several black players to “walk on” to practice and condition with the team.

Attorney U.W. Clemon filed a civil rights lawsuit against the storied Alabama Crimson Tide in 1969. The complaint was, black players were not recruited and allowed to play. Coach Bryant, under oath, testified he had been trying to recruit black players as early as 1966. He acknowledged a major obstacle was the prevailing climate of racial hostility.

The 1969 Season for the Alabama Tide was disappointing 6-5. Coach Bryant recognized the grandeur of three National Championships would not last long with an all-white team. The glow was fading and dark days were on the horizon.

He called John McKay, head coach of the Southern California Trojans and set up a meeting. In that meeting, Coach Bryant asked Coach McKay if he would bring his team to Birmingham and play Alabama in his season opener. Coach McKay asked, ‘what will I get out of it?’ Coach Bryant responded, ‘$150,000’. Coach McKay, then said, ‘only if you will come next year and play us in Los Angeles Coliseum’. Bear Bryant, responded
“I will, but what will I get”? McKay responded, ‘$250,000.’ The two iconic coaches shook hands and history was in the making.

Alabama, on the night of September 12, 1970, marched on to the field an all-white team. Southern California marched on to the field an integrated team with an all-black backfield. Ironically, Clarence Davis, tailback, was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and had great reservations about returning to “Bombingham” as it was known in civil right circles. Several of the black players packed guns in their luggage, out of concern for their safety.

The initial strategy of the Trojans was to silence the crowd. The Trojans gave the Alabama crowd very little to cheer about. Jim Jones, quarterback, shredded the Alabama defense with his missile accurate passing. However, great Jim Jones and Clarence Davis were that night, Sam “Bam” Cunningham emerged as the star, scoring two touchdowns and gaining 135 yards in only 12 carries. Alabama went through eight players, commissioned to stop Sam Cunningham, to no avail. When the dust settled in Legions Field, Alabama had been trounced 42 to 21. Every touchdown scored by the University of Southern California was scored by a black player.

The Alabama Crimson Tide opening game in 1970 was a pivotal event in collegiate football and the Civil Rights Movement. Coach Bryant had established “prima facia” evidence that black players were not inferior to white players. But more importantly, that continued resistance to integration would be the death of Alabama football as a powerhouse program.

Coach Bryant had dealt a death blow to segregation by scheduling a team he knew would defeat Alabama and was led by black players. Following the “beatdown” by the University of Southern California, Coach Bryant was allowed to recruit and play black players. He went on to win an additional three (3) National Championships and dominate the Southeastern Athletic Conference with integrated teams. The “Bear” won his final game in 1982 at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis with a black quarterback, Walter Lewis.

To raise the American conscience and sensitivity to the vicious resistance to voting rights for African Americans, Dr. King marched fifty-four (54) miles from Selma to Montgomery. Coach Bryant used one hundred (100) yards and sixty-minutes to break the back of segregation in the deep South. On August 12, 1970, Coach Bryant found victory in defeat.

(This is one in a series of periodic columns by the Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr., pastor emeritus of New Sardis Missionary Baptist Church.)

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