Throughout most of American history the South was the repository of wisdom and courage when it came to racial and cultural survival. Despite having suffered the desolation of the war and the oppression of Reconstruction, the citizens of Dixie emerged at the end of the nineteenth century with their peoplehood intact, protected by social custom and law. This situation continued with little disturbance until after the Second World War. It was then that a coalition of forces led by the United States government, launched a massive assault upon white southern institutions.
Popular accounts of the turbulent two decades that finally brought the former Confederate states to their knees focus on the intensity of Southern resistance. In reality, we now know that Southern politicians were often negotiating surrender even as they stood in schoolhouse doorways. Equally distressing is that the masses of Southerners, although concerned with racial survival, were often far too concerned with other things. Among those other concerns was the desire to play big-time college football.
What follows is a brief account of one conflict between the demands of racial survival and the pursuit of sports. It tells us much about changes that had taken place in the hearts and minds of those whose ancestors sang, “and rather than submit to shame, to die we would prefer.”
On November 26, 1955, at Atlanta’s Grant Field, the all-white Georgia Tech football team defeated the all-white University of Georgia team by a score of 21–3. This victory made Tech 8-1-1 for the year, and earned it an invitation to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where it would face the University of Pittsburgh. The Pitt Panthers had finished with a record of 7-3, but had captured the Eastern College Lambert Trophy, and were seen as capable of giving the powerful Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets a good game.
Three days after the victory, the legendary Tech coach Bobby Dodd received a telegram from Hugh C. Grant, a career diplomat and founder of Georgia’s States Rights Council. It read, “Urge your cooperation in preventing a breakdown of our laws, customs and traditions of racial segregation.” What prompted Grant’s telegram was the presence of a black fullback, Bobby Grier, on the Pitt roster. Tech had a tradition of all-white athletics, and Grant wanted to be sure that tradition would be upheld.
The Southern Tradition
Throughout the twentieth century Southern schools had refused to compete against integrated teams. This normally resulted in a gentleman’s agreement, sometimes written into game contracts, stipulating that when an integrated team played a Southern school the black players would stay out of the lineup.
If Northern teams did not bench their black players, Southern schools refused to play, whatever the consequences. In 1907, the University of Alabama baseball team refused to take the field against the University of Vermont in Burlington, when the latter insisted on keeping two black players in the lineup. The Alabamans chose to be fined and forfeit the game. In 1923, the Washington and Lee football team from Virginia refused to play Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, because the latter team would not bench its black quarterback. The Virginian squad just packed its bags and went home.
On November 2, 1929, a visit by University of Georgia to New York’s Yankee Stadium for a football game against New York University touched off an enormous controversy. The Northern press and even some congressmen demanded that NYU not honor the gentleman’s agreement to bench its two black players–to no avail. In Georgia, even the liberal Atlanta Constitution hailed NYU’s decision to remove the blacks from its roster.
Even border states shared the sentiment against integrated sports during the pre–World War II period. In 1930, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, demanded that Ohio State keep an all-Big Ten black tackle out of the game. The Buckeyes honored the request.
As the years went by, the talents of black football players made the standard Southern request sound like a desire for unfair advantage. Thus, for a 1934 game between Georgia Tech and University of Michigan, the Wolverines agreed to keep their star black end, Willis Ward, out of the game only if Tech benched its star end, Hoot Gibson.
As in so many racial matters, the Second World War was a turning point in the formerly consistent Southern position. The late ’40s saw the integration of major league baseball by Jackie Robinson, and the fledgling National Basketball Association signed three blacks in 1950. Pro football, which had an unspoken color line from 1934 till 1946, was rapidly hiring blacks.
The first defections from the Southern position occurred when schools (with the notable exception of those in Mississippi and Alabama) began to play integrated teams, provided the games were not held in the South. Georgia adopted this new policy in 1950 at a game in San Francisco against St. Mary’s College, and Tech followed in 1953 at Notre Dame.
The Sugar Bowl itself followed this Northern standard. In 1955, in order to lure a Northern opponent to the big game in New Orleans, the bowl committee followed the pattern of the Orange and Cotton Bowls, and made two crucial changes. Integrated teams could come, and segregation would not be enforced in the visiting team’s section of the stadium. These changes cleared the way for the invitation of Pitt to the 1956 game.
Until then, no Deep-South team had ever played an integrated team in the South, and this was what prompted Grant’s telegram to Coach Dodd.
Controversy at Tech
The coach brought the matter up with university president Blake R. Van Leer, who notified the governor’s office. It is reported that even before the telegram from Grant, Coach Dodd had polled his team and found that every member wanted to play the game, even with Grier on the field. He contacted Governor Marvin Griffin, who replied, “Bobby, I can’t come out publicly and support this [game]. But you go ahead and do it.”
In the morning of December 2nd, Governor Griffin called the Tech Athletic Association and asked for 24 tickets to the Sugar Bowl game. Amazingly, a little later that same day the governor held a press conference in which he fiercely denounced participation in the game. These hypocritical antics were to be common in the ensuing years as the likes of Governors Faubus, Wallace and Barnett raged passionately against integration in public while they helped promote it in private.
That day for the public, at least, Griffin said: “It is my request that athletic teams of the University System of Georgia not be permitted to engage in contests with other teams where the races are mixed or where segregation is not required among spectators. The South stands at Armageddon. The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamented hour of struggle. There is no difference between compromising the integrity of race on the playing field and doing so in the classrooms. One break in the dike, and the relentless seas will rush in and destroy us.”
But this was not the 1930s, and the response of Tech’s student body as well as its football team was much different from that of the school that simply refused to play an integrated Michigan team. That same night, December 2nd, a huge crowd of Tech students marched on the Capitol Building and the Governor’s Mansion to protest the governor’s segregationist views. On the way they smashed stores, tore up parking meters, and overturned trash cans. They broke into the Capitol Building, smashing locks, windows and furniture. They chanted and waved signs saying “To Hell With Griffin,” “Impeach Griffin,” “Grow Up, Griffin,” and “Griffin Sits On His Brains.” The Governor stayed in his mansion with the lights out, and only when former Tech football star Milton “Mugsy” Smith assured the crowd that the team would go to New Orleans did the students disperse, around three in the morning.
The riot prompted one Georgia state legislator to remark in the following days that “no one should in the future be admitted to Tech if he adhered to the principles of integration.”
Sentiment around the state was mixed. The University of Georgia held a “For Once We’re With Tech” rally to encourage Tech to go to New Orleans. The Atlanta Constitution now saw the Governor as “embarrassing the University and the state.” In another significant reversal, the acting Chancellor of Pittsburgh announced there would be “no compromises,” and Grier would “eat, sleep and play with his team.” Contrary to what it had done for half a century, the North was not backing down. It was up to the South to act.
The final decision rested with the 15-member Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, which met on Monday, December 5th. Despite the opposition of some well-known segregationists on the Board (among them Roy Harris, later President of the Citizens Councils of America) the board decided overwhelmingly to play the game. Indeed, the school’s president Van Lear threatened to quit if the board reached any other decision. Nonetheless, the board affirmed that segregation would be enforced at all Tech home games.
Now that he had taken a publicly segregationist stand, Griffin had no choice but to cancel his order for the 24 seats. He said he and his staff “would give no comfort to Negroes and white folks playing on the same field,” and “did not want to see colored folks sitting next to white people in the stands.”
On January 2, 1956, the 22nd annual Sugar Bowl was held in New Orleans before more than 80,000 fans. Bobby Grier started the game for Pitt, and even made the tackle on the opening kick off. Later, on a crucial play, Grier was called for pass interference at the Pitt one-yard line, and Tech scored on the next play. The score did not change after that, resulting in a 7–0 Georgia Tech victory. After the game, Grier claimed the call against him had been unfair, but he did admit that the Tech players had been gentlemanly throughout the contest. According to the New York Times, the crowd “repeatedly cheered the Negro fullback for a gallant performance.”
When the Georgia state legislature convened the following year, Senator Leon Butts introduced a bill that would legally ban “all athletic matches, physical games, social functions and entertainment events” in which blacks and whites participated together. Butts declared that “when whites and Negroes meet on the athletic fields on a basis of complete equality it is only natural that this sense of equality carry over into the daily living of the people.” The bill passed the Georgia Senate but was defeated in the House. The Atlanta Constitution editorialized against the bill because it would make it impossible to schedule north/south games, and would adversely affect the “national status of the Southeastern Conference.”
In retrospect the bill’s passage or defeat seems irrelevant. In 1959 the United States Supreme Court declared a similar ban in Louisiana unconstitutional, and the Brown decision on school integration was slowly being carried out throughout the South. For a brief period in the late 1950s, Alabama and Mississippi teams refused invitations to national tournaments and bowl games against mixed-race teams, but eventually they, too, capitulated.
As Southern schools became integrated, it was inevitable that their athletic teams would follow suit. First to fall were the Southwestern and Atlantic Conference schools. Eventually the Southeastern Conference (SEC) border states joined them in fielding mixed-race teams. In 1971 Ole Miss itself had a black basketball player and in 1972 a black football player. By 1975, close to half the athletes in all sports in the SEC were black, and in 1980 the number reached 70 percent. Today the figure is no doubt even higher.
What difference does it make whether sports teams are integrated or whether white players take the field against blacks? During the Sugar Bowl controversy of late 1955, the Atlanta Constitution criticized Roy Harris and Hugh Grant for thinking that “a football game (is) a social event. No tea will be served. As further assurance for the extremist group, there are no females on either team and there is absolutely no danger of intermarriage as a result.”
It is significant that the paper implicitly endorsed social segregation and condemned miscegenation, but it failed to think things through. The Constitution and the pro-game contingent failed to grasp that any form of easy social mingling inevitably yields friendships and eventually, inter-racial dating and marriage. As the reality of fewer than 50 years later demonstrates, the prophecies of the integrationists were wrong, and those of the segregationists were right.
Furthermore, the entry of large numbers of blacks into sports changes their very character. Black behavior is the precise opposite of the standards of graciousness, humility, and sportsmanship whites developed over a period of centuries. In black-dominated sports it is now a matter of course to insult and humiliate one’s opponents, to swagger in victory and sulk in defeat. At the same time, the emergence of black “super-stars” has accelerated the general acceptance of non-whites in all areas of society.
The American South is, of course, not alone in suffering the consequences of letting athletics become the first concession against racial integrity. It was under the National Party that sports-mad South Africa opened the first breach in apartheid by letting a racially-mixed New Zealand rugby team tour the country in the late 1960s. Three decades later, it was the same National Party that surrendered the entire country to black rule and the savagery that has followed. White Rhodesians wanted to play international cricket–and got the nightmare of rule by Robert Mugabe.
As for the students of Georgia Tech, all they wanted was to play in the Sugar Bowl. They have lived to see their grandchildren come of age in a multi-racial South, in which whites have no more racial pride than New Yorkers or Californians.
If it was not entirely clear in 1957, it is certainly clear today. Whites everywhere are under siege; and for a people under siege there can be no compromise.