"Maybe We Could Get Us Some"

SEC desegregation signaled the beginning of the end of HBCU excellence

By the beginning of the 1970s, America had undergone a transformation. “Separate but equal” ideology would no longer be supported in court and many of the objectives demanded by the Civil Rights Movement were accomplished. Black Americans gained the right to vote, something promised to them 100 years before by the Constitution but was systematically denied in South. Integrating K-12 schools came next, and with that came more integrated sports teams.

The argument for desegregation in the SEC gained a boost one Saturday in September 1970, when a team with an all-black backfield from Southern California ventured deep into the former Confederacy to challenge Paul “Bear” Bryant and his Alabama Crimson Tide. The Trojans brought with them a dynamic young fullback named Sam “Bam” Cunningham, and his efforts in that game are credited with leading to the final nail in the coffin of segregation in sports.

More than 72,000 fans filled Legion Field in Birmingham to see the Tide take on the No. 3 Trojans, making the game an historic occasion. Since 1951, no major program north of the Mason Dixon line or out West had ever visited Alabama for a football game, and this high-profile matchup would go a long way in boosting Bama’s national prestige.[16]

While the fans were excited for the actual game, they were also undoubtedly curious to see USC’s team, as the Trojans brought with them nearly 20 black players. Never before had an integrated team with those numbers of blacks ever played in Alabama.

And just to show how tolerant they were of this, the Alabama band even volunteered to hold off on playing “Dixie” until the second half of the contest.[17]

How benevolent of them.

History shows that the Trojans, led by a stunning effort from their sophomore fullback who rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns on just twelve carries, dominated the Tide, 42-21. Cunningham’s effort — which in and of itself was remarkable because at that time, fullbacks did not carry the ball — coupled with that from the rest of USC’s all-black backfield that dominated Alabama so effortlessly, was finally enough to convince the officials in Tuscaloosa to allow Bryant to recruit black players.

Popular legend says that USC’s victory encouraged Bryant himself — and the rest of the SEC — that desegregation was critical to success, but that’s not entirely true. Bryant had wanted to desegregate the team, but his superiors needed more convincing. Furthermore, the lesser programs in the SEC had slowly begun to integrate already, in an effort to obtain a competitive advantage over the all-white powerhouses.

It cannot be overstated that for schools in the South, integration was viewed as a necessary evil to continue scheduling intersectional competition and to gain national prestige through sports. As one white Alabama assistant coach is reported to have said in the wake of the defeat to USC, “Sam Cunningham did more for integration in Alabama than Martin Luther King did in twenty years.”[18]

That’s because Cunningham decisively proved to the white institutions in the South that black athletes could improve athletic programs, both competitively and commercially. The same schools that once championed the "Gentlemen's Agreement" were now the same ones that realized they could not truly be great without having black players on roster.

Tennessee and Kentucky were the first universities in the SEC to realize how black players could make their programs better, and to hang with the likes of Alabama, LSU and Florida, the smaller schools in the SEC would need all the help they could get.

Kentucky boldly defied Jim Crow when it awarded Greg Page and Nathaniel “Nat” Northington athletic scholarships for the 1966-67 season, making them the first black scholarship athletes in the SEC. When Northington stepped on the field that fall, he was the first black person to ever play in a varsity SEC contest. Tennessee issued a grant-in-aid to Lester McClain, also in 1967, and he took the field for the Volunteers in 1968.[19]

Tennessee would go on to have a proud history of not just black athletes, but specifically black quarterbacks. They led the SEC in this avenue, fielding notable signal-callers like Condredge Holloway, the first black quarterback in school history, and Tee Martin, who led Tennessee to the first ever BCS National Championship in 2000 after completing an undefeated season.

Once the likes of Auburn, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Florida saw what they were missing by not desegregating, those universities went all-in on desegregation. Alabama itself followed suit in 1971.

That left LSU, Ole Miss and Georgia, the “final citadel of segregation,” as the only all-white squads left in the SEC. [20]

Louisiana had more legal barriers in place than any other state in the South to bar integrated activities, so desegregating athletics at LSU was a major challenge. While most states just had unwritten rules about prohibiting competition between blacks and whites, Louisiana had actual laws preventing any kind of public integrated events.[21]

One such statute banned individuals, groups, schools or corporations from sponsoring any public athletic contests, social functions or entertainment that included white and black participants. As a result, LSU had to forego its plans to schedule intersectional competitions between schools from the North and the Midwest.[22]

The laws also severely limited LSU’s postseason options only to the Sugar Bowl, which was still allowing only all-white teams to play on its field at that time.

But LSU would not be exempt from change for long.

In 1961, LSU played Colorado at the Orange Bowl in Miami, the first ever integrated game for the Tigers. This ushered in more scheduling against integrated teams for LSU, both above and below the Mason Dixon line. In 1971, LSU signed its first two black football players — fullback Lora Hinton and defensive back Mike Williams.[23]

LSU Demographics | Create infographics

Things went more smoothly at Georgia, which was very quickly rewarded for ending its ban on black players in Athens.

In the late 1960s, the Bulldogs started recruiting black players, but fears of attacks from white students who resisted integration still kept blacks from enrolling for years. Georgia made history in 1972 though, when it fielded its first ever desegregated team, featuring five black players.

In 1980, Georgia won the biggest recruiting battle in the history of the state when it landed Herschel Walker, the eventual Heisman trophy winner that led the Bulldogs to an 11-0 season and a national title over Notre Dame in his freshman year, and two more SEC championships. [24]

Mississippi faced the most social challenges desegregating, as everything about the school from its colors to its mascot evoked strong imagery of white supremacy and the Confederacy. Even the school’s nickname of “Ole Miss,” a nod not the abbreviation of the state but to a term that described the mistress of a plantation was a constant reminder to black students and athletes alike that they were not welcome as equals in Oxford. [25]

Blood spilled across the campus in 1962 when riots broke out over the arrival of James Meredith, the first black student at Mississippi. For years, the marching band unfurled a 90-foot-long Confederate flag at home games, and cheerleaders handed out smaller ones to fans in attendance. [26]

Mississippi owned its racism and bigotry, and was proud to represent that to the nation.

But as the administrators at Mississippi saw how maintaining a policy of racial exclusion was causing them to suffer competitively, they too, began to slowly move in the direction of progress.

In 1967, Mississippi began allowing integrated teams to play in Oxford, but still did not allow black players to compete on its own team. Even in the fall of 1971, Mississippi continued to hold out, while all other SEC schools had given out at least two scholarships to black athletes. Racial exclusion finally came to an end in Oxford that December, when Mississippi signed tackle Robert J. “Ben” Williams to the team. [27]

By the 1976 season, Mississippi had 16 black athletes on roster, but race relations on campus had hardly improved. It wasn’t until 1997 that the university banned Confederate flags from football games, 34 years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the nation about his dream for a racially inclusive nation.

Its refusal to let go of its Conferade image for so long showed that winning triumphed over racist beliefs at Mississippi and other schools, but it did not erase them entirely.

While the SEC was changing the complexion of its athletics, America as a whole began to aggressively push for integration in all aspects of American life.

Many blacks in American rejoiced at the prospect of a better future, but the coaches at HBCUs quietly looked on, knowing the dynasties they had worked decades to build would soon crumble.


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