Al-Tony Gilmore is this week's guest author.
A week before this year's Final Four, ESPN televised a NCAA college basketball game played a half-century ago that was the most important sporting event associated with the Civil Rights Movement.
No one expected Texas Western College to reach the NCAA championship game. It was no surprise, on the other hand, that the highly ranked University of Kentucky with legendary coach Adolph Rupp was competing for the title. At that time, no major college in the South had ever recruited a black athlete. Texas Western was different. It was a small mid-major school located in the southwest -- El Paso, Texas -- and its coach, Don Haskins, defied convention with a starting line-up that was all black.
The championship game played at University of Maryland's Cole Field House was a perfect storm for the Civil Rights Movement. In the five preceding years most southern universities had admitted their first black students. In Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, federal intervention was required for their enrollment and safety. Segregation was being challenged in all areas of American life, but not without backlash and stiff resistance. It was a period of both promise and peril. The March on Washington of 1963 and on Selma in 1965 led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the price was costly. In 1963, four young black girls attending Sunday School in Birmingham were killed when a bomb exploded. Civil Rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were killed in Mississippi in 1964, as were Viola Luizzo and Medgar Evers in 1965. Those years and events were a prologue for the game that was at the intersection of sport and society, and in the vortex of integration and interracial change in America.
Haskins understood and exploited the racial climate of the times, and the unusual racial composition of his team. Before leaving the hotel for the game, he assembled his black players and told them that Rupp was "telling people there was no way five black players could beat five whites." There is no evidence to support the claim that Rupp made that remark, but years later his players said it was all the motivation they needed.
Texas Western defeated Kentucky and some writers and the public struggled to make sense of it. One writer described the team as being able to "do more things with a basketball than a monkey on a 50 foot jungle wire." A northern industrialist rushed a congratulatory message to Texas Western's president, expressing delight over the championship being won by "a small Negro college." The following year the real impact of the game unfolded. North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Baylor recruited their first black athletes. By 1970, most southern schools were recruiting black athletes. To succeed in sports, benching Jim Crow was required. Four years later an integrated Southern California football team, led by black running back Sam Cunningham , crushed Bear Bryant's all-white Alabama team. The next year Alabama recruited its first black athlete, prompting one of Bryant's assistants to say that "Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in twenty years."
It was the beginning of a change in social attitudes and the culture of intercollegiate athletic competition that was unimaginable in the South before the Texas Western and Kentucky game.
Though late is better than never, it is perplexing that it took Don Haskins' book, Glory Road and the movie it inspired, before the team would be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007. No doubt the delay was caused by the residue of the attitudes of those who never approved of the all black starters. Ed Sullivan never invited the NCAA champions to appear on his program, which had been customary. Some, such as writer James Michener, in his book, Sports in America, questioned the integrity of Haskins' recruitment of black players who Michener did not consider to be legitimate college students. The game, he wrote, "was one of the most wretched episodes in the history of American sports." Sports Illustrated also later argued that none of the Texas Western players were "real students." Such reporting diminished the title. Adolph Rupp further contributed to the tarnishing, outrageously claiming that one of the players was recruited out of prison. It would be a generation later before mainstream media reported that five of the seven black players graduated, compared to four of the five Rupp starters never graduating from Kentucky. Fortunately, the book, movie, Hall of Fame honors, 50th Anniversary, and ESPN have cleared the record by resurrecting the significance of the game, and the integrity of the coach and the seven black players who played in it: David Lattin, Orsten Artis, Bobby Joe Hill, Willie Worsley, Harry Flournoy, Willie Cager and Nevil Shed.
It is disappointing that the film of the game has deteriorated in quality. Being a national treasure it deserves restoration so that future generations can see it as it was once seen. The American Film Institute, Library of Congress and others have re-mastered many films for posterity, some of which even project pejorative images of blacks, such as Gone with the Wind, Song of the South, and Birth of a Nation. Surely, this game, too, is a part of our heritage. It ignited important social change, and should be valued for the lessons we learn from it. Our nation became a better place sooner, because of that single game. It remains a teachable moment. Given the enormous resources of the NCAA, ESPN and the NBA, the restoration is long overdue.
This game matters.
Al-Tony Gilmore is an author and Historian Emeritus of the National Education Association. He has published and lectured extensively on social and sports history. His books include, "Bad Nigger: The National Impact of Jack Johnson." Dr. Gilmore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at email@example.com. He tweets as @ECooper4556.