P.O.V: The Integration of Collegiate Basketball
A Special Tribute To Our First Black Student Athletes
You're a racist! Stings, right? Racism today is a fire starter of a topic. Many claim to look at everyone equally, claiming race is not prevalent in today's society. Others claim it's rampant and encourage revolution. Have you ever thought seriously about a time when racism was the norm? A time when races thought of each other as fundamentally different, never to be mixed. When restrooms, water fountains, and swimming pools were never to be pierced by opposing skin. That means that, by and large, blacks stuck close to blacks and whites with whites. Not in a cliquish, I grew up with them so we hang out sort of way either. More in a 'you might die if you look at that person the wrong way' type of way.
Athletes often thrive on the energy of the crowd. The home games' electric arenas and adoring fans chanting our names fuel us, serving as the catalyst for our glory. Even opposing teams booing and taunting us can be a welcoming sound. But what if you were booed in your home arena? How would that feel? For most athletes, the court or field, is a getaway. A safe have even. They're the kid at play, displaying their talents for all to see. The most gratifying trophy is the adoration of 1000's of strangers calling your name.
The early pioneers who integrated the sport they were received with seething hate. Home or away. The general consensus was that whites and blacks were meant to be separate. That's just the way it was. The integration of public schools was deemed unconstitutional in 1954 (Brown vs The Board of Education) but black athletes were largely unaccepted in white institutions until the late 1960's and 70's. The North was more progressive integrating blacks into their schools but the Southern schools were much more stubborn. There were even agreements made, when a Southern school played a Northern school blacks were not to play. It was somewhat of an unspoken rule. Southern teams would go as far as to cancel games if a black player was expected to suit up and compete. The attitude of the South can be summarized by former Georgia senator Leon Butts, who in 1957 was on record saying, "when Negroes and whites meet on the athletic fields on a basis of complete equality, it is only natural that this sense of equality carries into the daily living of these people.” He spoke about equality as if it were deplorable. (We are only 2 generations removed from this)
Of course, southern integration was initially met with great resistance. Protests, anti-integration laws, and even travel bans. Southern people just wanted things to stay the way they were. Blacks over there and whites over there. The 1959, 61 and 62 Mississippi State Bulldogs missed the NCAA tournament because it was illegal in Mississippi for whites to play against blacks. It was against school policy and state laws. When the Bulldogs earned an opportunity to play in the 1963 NCAA tournament they had to, literally, sneak out of the state to compete against Loyola University which featured 4 black players in the starting lineup. Loyola beat an all white Mississippi State team and made it to the championship game. Mississippi State soon opened their doors to students of all races but didn't have a black student-athlete until the early 1970's.
We all know the great Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics 11 championships as one of the NBA's greatest winners. Not as many people know that Russell was a superstar at the University of San Francisco. His junior year he won 28 out of 29 games, won the national championship, won Final Four MVP and was first team All-American averaging over 20 points and 20 rebounds. Another player was chosen for player of the year in Northern California that year. Russell said, "at that time was not acceptable for a black player to be the best, that did not happen..."
It would be great if we could say that integration succeeded because all human beings are equal and deserve to compete on the same playing field. But, from what we gather, integration was simply accepted so that the all white schools could compete. Integrated schools were having success with black players. Unfortunately, that means that attitudes were largely suppressed, not actually changed. However, these players and many unnamed, unheralded players just like them endured hardship we will never know first hand. Racist jeers from raucous crowds, denial of entry in hotels on the road, award snubs, spit, separate locker rooms of isolation and degradation, working twice as hard to get half as far. They sacrificed for what is now the majority in college basketball. They deserve the credit because they paved they way. So, if you love college basketball and all it entails. Be thankful for the pioneers that made today's game possible.