There were only three places left in the rented blue sedan that was shuttling athletes between the practice field and downtown Modesto, before the California Relays there last Saturday night. The driver was in a hurry, and Stan Wright, the coach from Texas Southern University, motioned to his relay team to get into the car. The four boys hesitated on the curb and shook their heads. "We better wait for the next car," said Lee Smith. "If our relay team can't fit in there together, we'd rather not go right now." So, some other kids climbed into the back seat, and the four sprinters who within 24 hours would be trying to set a world record in the 440-yard relay stood around and waited for a car that had room for all of them.
"It may seem unimportant that they don't want to be separated for a 10-minute ride," Coach Wright said later. "But when you realize the kind of team effort a relay demands, you appreciate their attitude." Smith, a 26-year-old Army veteran who is the unofficial leader of the group, put it more simply: "Over the season, we've learned to love each other."
Smith smiled as he spoke, but his choice of words reflected the unusual and serious mood that surrounded the Texas Southern track men last weekend. With one of the most talented fields of the season assembled for the meet, most of the talk at Modesto was of records and trophies. But the young Negro men from Texas Southern had some other things on their minds—things like sticking close together, and love and, most particularly, hate. They had seen the last emotion at close range only 10 days before, and even the glamour of a big meet could not wipe it out of their thoughts.
Texas Southern almost did not make it to Modesto last week. A number of trackmen—including two of the relay members but not the best one, Jimmy Hines—had been among the 488 people arrested after a riot on the school's Houston campus. At 3:15 on the morning of May 17, they had been yanked from their beds and taken to a police station to be questioned on suspicion of the murder of a policeman during the riot.
June 4, 1967
"When all the trouble broke out," said Wright, "the police just started rushing through each dorm and grabbing everyone. The athletic dorm happened to be right in their path. Our kids were all asleep and didn't even know what was going on. Still, they were taken out and booked. Now the school is trying to get the arrests wiped off the books, so the kids won't have records." School officials also wondered if they should keep their athletes home for a while, but Wright convinced them that doing so would make matters only worse.
Even if the police records are changed, however, the trackmen's memories of the arrests will be ineradicable. Bobby Evans, a 20-year-old sophomore from Dallas, was awakened that night with a pistol pointed at his forehead. He was rushed through the halls and outside to the front of the student union, where hundreds of kids in pajamas or shorts were being forced to lie in a low-walled concrete patio the students call the pit. Near him he found teammate Arnaldo Bristol. Hines and Smith were absent, because they are married and live in another part of the campus.
"They beat us up a little and then went back and tore up our rooms," Evans said. "Then they took us to jail and held us about 16 hours. Some guys had been pulled out of the shower and just had towels around them, but the cops wouldn't let them go back and put pants on. It was humiliating." At that moment the goals and rewards that had seemed important, and the conference title they had carried back to the campus only four days before, became very insignificant for Evans and Bristol. They were suddenly just two more black kids in a crowd looking up at guns and white cops.
"Would they have wrecked the dorms like that if trouble had started on an all-white campus?" asked Smith. "Did they expect to find funds hidden in the TV picture tubes they smashed?" "Are we still bitter?" added Evans. "You bet we are. These arrests damaged our reputations at home and among people who weren't there to see that we had nothing to do with the riot. And look what it did to the school's reputation."
Someone wondered if a real record or a victory by Hines over his nemesis, Charlie Greene, might get people's minds off Texas Southern's troubles. "To be realistic," said Smith, "I doubt it. This thing is a lot bigger than anything we can do. I wonder if people can ever forget something like this."
But his coach could not help wondering if a big win would go a long way toward calming them all down. "My boys weren't involved in any politics leading up to the trouble," Wright said, "because I believe a dedicated athlete and student hasn't much time for demonstrating. I did tell them that if they wanted to demonstrate they might as well do it by setting sprint records."
Since the relay team was hampered by the loss of the injured Clyde Duncan—replaced by Bristol—the most likely candidate to bring a record to Texas Southern Saturday was Hines, who, Wright says, is the best sprinter he has had in 16 years at TSU. Hines, usually quiet and withdrawn, was strikingly confident before his 100-meter race with Greene, the cool and casual Nebraska star who had whipped him in every one of six previous meetings. "I should have beaten him at the Drake Relays a month ago," Hines said. "He got a big break at the start. If we leave the blocks together this time it will be my race."
"If we leave the blocks together," retorted Greene, "I will have had an awful bad start." Greene's cocky assurance increased on the first attempt at a start: Hines broke too soon, and Greene remained icily stationary on the blocks, drawing laughs and cheers from the crowd as Hines trotted morosely back to his position. Wright, who knew the race would be won at the start, paced away in disgust from his spot near the blocks. Like almost everyone else, he assumed that Hines would now have to be extra cautious to avoid a second false start that would disqualify him.
Hines was cautious, but he did not get left at the post. He broke third behind Greene and Canadian recordholder Harry Jerome and, as he had promised, the fairly equal break made it Hines's race. He took the lead 15 yards from the tape and held off a late rush by Oregon State's surprising freshman, Willie Turner, who lost later by only a tenth of a second in the 220 to San Jose State's Tommie Smith. Greene made a desperate lunge at the wire, but it gained him only third place and a painful skid along the track on his chest. Leaning over and gasping for air, Hines heard the announcement: "The time, 10 seconds, tying the world record for 100 meters." But several clockings had already been nullified due to excess tail wind. "I guess that will happen again," he shrugged. The wind, happily, turned out to have been just under the allowable limit, and Hines had his record. He basked in the admiration of his teammates for all of one minute before Coach Wright interrupted. "You got 32 minutes till the relay."
In the 440-yard relay, Texas Southern lacked the cohesion the runners seek so diligently through togetherness and concentration. Bristol, while swift and willing, was unable to fit perfectly into the team with only a few weeks' work. Evans ran a weak opening leg, Bristol was slow taking the baton and the short and explosive race was over. Dick Hill's well-drilled Southern University team opened a wide lead that even a brilliant final leg by Hines—he made up about eight yards on a fine sprinter named William Miller—could not overcome. "Sure Hines closed on him," laughed Dick Hill. "But I wasn't watching him. I just kept saying, get to that string quick. He did."
In opening the 880-yard relay with Hines, Wright hoped to grab a wide lead over Southern U. and hang onto it. "That can't work," Hill said later. "If you have a weak leg somewhere, we'll find it, don't worry." A speedster named Oliver Ford found Bristol after a bad baton pass, erased the lead Hines had built and set up another decisive Southern U. win. "But with the two of us dominating all these schools this way, our conference looks pretty good, doesn't it?" asked Hill, suddenly magnanimous even toward archrival Wright. The Southwestern Athletic Conference, a group of predominantly Negro schools, looked very strong indeed. And Texas Southern in particular seemed a little better in other ways after the meet.
"I'm pleased with the boys, considering the injury to Duncan that hurt us," said Wright, "and I'm very happy and proud for Jim Hines." The other boys appeared just as proud of their star. As they left they were already thinking about improving their own roles. "We're still working on our new relay lineup," said Evans. "It's not quite perfect yet. But it will be." They were thinking ahead, and the bitterness was gone from them for a while. They sat on the grass behind the stands, talking quietly. They did not hear Wright as he explained patiently to one more person, "I'll tell you, the riot just never should have happened."