On Alabama, race, and the Crimson Tide

Malone_Hood_Plaza_University_of_Alabama.jpg

Malone-Hood Plaza in front of Foster Auditorium on the campus of the University of Alabama

As part of their coverage leading up to the college football National Championship Game on Monday night, ESPN came to Tuscaloosa and did a piece on race and sports at the University of Alabama. My friend and colleague, Assistant Professor Sharony Green, was interviewed by Cari Champion at the site of George Wallace’s infamous 1963 “stand in the school house door.” (Read more about the interview and Green’s thoughts on it on her website).  The discussion centered on the university’s acknowledgement of its past in our current age of more inclusiveness and diversity. Watch it below:

What struck me about the interview was that Champion was  genuinely surprised that the university has a very nice memorial at the site (Malone-Hood Plaza) commemorating the event and celebrating the school’s first three African American students (Autherine Lucy, Vivian Malone, and James Hood). I’m not sure why this should be surprising, given that the state of Alabama has done much to memorialize, interpret, and preserve such sites. For instance, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and museum has been around for close to thirty years, and it, along with other civil rights sites in the state’s largest city (such as Kelly Ingram Park and the 16th Street Baptist Church) are about to become part of the National Park Service. Additionally,  Montgomery’s Civil Rights Memorial (which was designed by Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in DC) has been around for nearly as long.  The capital city also contains the Rosa Parks Museum, and is soon to become home to a large national memorial to the victims of lynching. Further, visitors to the city have long been able to partake in tours of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. And then there is Selma’s Voting Rights Museum and Institute, as well as a National Park interpretive center for the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. If you are looking for historic sites associated with the Civil Rights movement, the state of Alabama has many exceptional ones. Hopefully, preconceived notions (like Cari Champion’s) about what is preserved and celebrated down here won’t keep you away.

To be fair, Foster Auditorium (built in 1939 by the WPA), the building on the University of Alabama’s campus which is the site of Wallace’s stand, had long gone unmarked until fairly recently (besides a small plaque at the entrance). In fact, when I first arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2000 as a graduate student, the building (although still in use)  was essentially falling apart, with the university doing little to preserve it beyond keeping the roof in good shape. Thanks to the efforts of now-deceased athletic director Mal Moore (an assistant coach for Bear Bryant and the man that brought Nick Saban to Alabama), the university finally decided in 2009 to restore the building’s gymnasium and to build the Hood-Malone Plaza in front to memorize the site’s historic significance to the Civil Rights Movement. So yes, the memorial is still very new. As Green notes in the interview, it is part of a larger effort at inclusiveness, as have been recent efforts to study  and publicly acknowledge/memorialize the university’s antebellum ties to and support of slavery (something happening at many universities across the country).

But what about race and sports? The two have a long connection at UA. Yes, the university integrated in 1963 after Wallace’s stand, but the school’s sports teams remained all-white until the early 1970s. It is gospel in these parts that Alabama’s football team was denied a national championship in 1966 solely because they stubbornly refused to integrate (they refer to it around here as “The Missing Ring”).   Some have argued that legendary Coach Bear Bryant had wanted to integrate before that time, not so much because he was racially enlightened, but because the man was a winner, and if an athlete could help him win, he didn’t give a damn what color he was. In 1959, he defied enormous pressure and threats from certain politicians and white organizations in order to play a racially integrated Penn State team in the Liberty Bowl. In the early 60s, he encouraged talented southern black athletes to go to northern colleges, and grew tired of seeing so much talent go elsewhere.  In 1967, he welcomed four black men onto the team as walk-ons, praising them for their courage. It was around this time that Bryant was actively recruiting black athletes, but couldn’t land them for one reason or the other, mostly because of the school’s history and Wallace’s stand. The once dominant program began to fall into mediocrity, and thus Bryant’s desire to integrate grew stronger. Evidence suggests that Wallace continued to be the biggest impediment, as he threatened to cut funding if the state’s flagship university integrated its football team, even as other SEC schools did so. Then came the legendary game in 1970 when a fully integrated Southern California team thrashed Alabama in Birmingham’s Legion Field behind a powerful backfield of black players. There is probably too much credit given to that game for causing Alabamians to accept the integration of the team, but it is true that the very next season the team had two black players on scholarship,  John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson (who was already on the junior varsity and was the first black player signed by Bryant). From that point on, the team rapidly integrated and Bryant went on to win three more National Championships.

It was during this run in the 1970s, with Bama fully integrated, that many fans of my generation first fell in love with the Tide at a very early age. I was born in Birmingham in the turbulent year of 1968, and was part of the first generation of Alabamians that went to integrated schools their entire lives. Despite having grandparents with the typical sentiments of their times, racial stereotypes and slurs made little sense to me, as I went to school with black kids, played team sports with black kids, and cheered on black Alabama football players. My father is the reason I loved Alabama football, but African American players like Ozzie Newsome, Sylvester Croom,  Don McNeal, Jeremiah Castille, Walter Lewis, and especially Tony Nathan were my first sports heroes. For me, and I suspect many others my age, the love of sports was one important factor in why I did not grow up with the same racial sentiments of  most of the previous generation of white Alabamians, even within my own family.

Of course we can’t pretend that sports always have that kind of impact. There are plenty of fans that have no problem cheering for black athletes and yet at the same time holding racist opinions about African Americans. We’ve all heard people that have abhorrently theorized about how blacks are talented athletes because they were naturally made for grunt work, or that slavery itself bred them into superior physical specimens. Those sorts of disgusting people see no incongruity in cheering and praising black athletes while still holding racist opinions about them and “their place.” I can’t speak for such folks, but we all know they are out there.

Still, I really believe that the impact that integrated sports had on my developing world-view as a child and young man is more typical, and has played a tremendously important role in creating our more inclusive and equal society–Though we obviously still have further to go (as recent events have more than revealed).

On Monday night, Alabama’s Nick Saban will be pursuing his 6th National Championship as a college coach, which would tie him with Bear Bryant for the most ever (but perhaps Bryant would still be ahead had the team been integrated in ’66). I’ll be cheering on young men, coaches, and a support staff that has a strong bond of brotherhood with each other, no matter their individual races, and I’ll be bonded with that team and its legions of fans, regardless of the diversity among us. (Clemson’s fans can say the same, and their coach, Dabo Swinney, grew up in a suburb of Birmingham as an Alabama fan around the same time as I did). These days, that won’t be atypical or unusual at all.

We couldn’t have said that in 1963 when George Wallace stood in the door of Foster Auditorium to keep Hood and Malone out of the university. Much has changed, and integration and sports has helped cause that. Let’s pray that the arc of justice keeps bending in that direction.

Anyway, thats what I think about when I think about Alabama sports and race.

Roll Tide.

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