El Paso lies farther west than Denver, Cheyenne and Dodge City. Although it is in Texas, it is nearly 1,000 miles away from the "grits zone"—that portion of the United States where hominy grits come with your breakfast whether you ordered them or not. El Paso is just about as far as you can go in Texas and not be in Mexico, old or New. Geographically, at least, the city should be a coldbed of racial prejudice and, for the most part, it is. Negroes make up only about 2% of the city's permanent population; the economic competition that aggravates race relations is missing. And besides, there are the Mexican-Americans—some 45% of the population—to siphon off the natural disdain that well-fed people feel for the hungry.
The only conspicuous exception to El Paso's orderly Negro and white relations lies in parched foothills just to the north of the central business district. There, framed on the west by a horizon line of rocky desert, one finds an institution that now calls itself the University of Texas at El Paso, but until last year was celebrated in sports circles as Texas Western. Most people now call it UT at El Paso, or simply UTEP, and its players are "The Miners." The campus is neat, honest and, for the most part, architecturally cohesive, with its buildings—old and new—designed in a bizarre Tibetan style that is actually Bhutanese. The overwhelming feeling of the place is one of dryness, geographic and climatic dryness. It is a big school, it is still growing and it is one other thing: it is the first campus where black athletes have become so incensed at their treatment that they refused to compete and thereby gave up their scholarships.
You may be excused for assuming that UTEP is an all-Negro school. Many do. In fact, there is a story among UTEP athletes that a high school football player recently turned down a UTEP recruiter by explaining that he did not count himself a bigot, but neither did he want to be the only white in an all-black school. He was surprised when the recruiter explained hastily that UTEP is almost entirely white, that there are fewer than 250 Negroes in a student body of almost 10,000.
The school's reputation for being all black was established two years ago when its basketball team played the University of Kentucky in the nationally televised NCAA finals. Although UTEP had a few white players on the bench, none of them got into the game. The starting five was black, and the first two replacements were black, and they made a startling contrast to Adolph Rupp's lily-white aggregation from Lexington, whom they beat handily 72-65.
July 14, 1968
The idea of gaining a national reputation from the muscles and skills of Negro athletes was not new at UTEP two years ago. Long before that, the school had recruited Jim (Bad News) Barnes and many another nationally noted black athlete, starting with Charlie Brown in 1956. The walls around the university's athletic department are covered with pictures of Negroes who have brought glory to the school. In a glass trophy case at the place of honor in the hall is a huge oil painting by El Pasoan Tom Lea (author of The Brave Bulls), showing Negro Bob Wallace catching the pass that defeated Utah in the last few seconds of a crucial game in the 1965 season. Farther down the hall is a two-by-three-foot photograph of Detroit Negro Bobby Joe Hill, with basketball in hand, and other testimonials to famous black athletes from the school: Dave Lattin, Fred Carr, Charlie West, et al.
Under the leadership of an enterprising and widely respected president, Dr. Joseph M. Ray, UTEP has doubled its enrollment in the last eight years, and even now the jackhammers are tearing up the campus, ripping out space for new buildings and additions to old ones. Dr. Ray—who is resigning this September—and his staff of professors and his high-powered team of coaches admit that the exploits of the school's Negro athletes have not hampered the expansion program. "The Negro athlete has helped us tremendously," says Football Coach Bobby Dobbs. "We wouldn't have built this institution as quickly without the Negro, because they have been very fine kids and we have been happy to have them."
Dr. Ray himself says that UTEP would not be so well-known throughout the country without its black athletes, but he also says, "It's not too wholesome to be known as a jockey strap college. We've got some quality undergirding this." Nor is there any reason to think that Dr. Ray's achievements have not been significant, that he has not built a good college or that it does not have an undergirding of quality. It may even be that the school had a practical, viable approach when it chose to use athletics to help itself become established. But that is beside the point. This is a story about those who were used and how they were used—not why they were used.
One might suppose that a school which has so thoroughly and actively exploited black athletes would be breaking itself in half to give them something in return, both in appreciation for the achievements of the past and to assure a steady flow of black athletes in the future. One might think that UTEP, with its famed Negro basketball players, its Negro football stars and its predominantly Negro track team would be determined to give its black athletes the very squarest of square deals. But the Negroes on the campus insist this is not the case—far from it.
For a starter, the black athletes wish a simple thing: that members of the UTEP athletic department would stop referring to them as "niggers."
"This was the first institution in Texas—right here!—that had a colored athlete, and George McCarty, our athletic director, was the coach who recruited him," says Assistant Athletic Director Jim Bowden. "George McCarty's done more for 'em than this damn guy Harry Edwards that's coming in here to speak. George McCarty's done more for the nigger race than Harry Edwards'll do if he lives to be 100."
In his pleasant office, short, bald-headed George McCarty sits under a wreath of his own cigar smoke and talks with pride about the "nigger" athletes who have starred for the school. Occasionally he says "nigra." He seldom uses the word Negro (pronounced knee-grow), although sometimes he seems to try. "It's a habit that you don't change overnight," he explains.
Says Boh Wallace, the end who is featured in Tom Lea's oil painting, "When I go into the athletic office, McCarty says 'Negro,' but when you overhear him talking to somebody else it's always 'nigger' or 'nigra.' Jim Bowden's the same way, and so are some of the others. They can pronounce Negro if they want to. They can pronounce it. But I think it seems like such a little thing to them. The trouble with them is they're not thinking of the Negro and how he feels. Wouldn't you suppose that if there was one word these guys that live off Negroes would get rid of, one single word in the whole vocabulary, it would be nigger?"
David (Big Daddy) Lattin, who played on the Miners' national championship team in 1966, says the problem is not a new one. "We had a meeting of the Negroes on the squad when I was a freshman, and that must have been 1963, and we decided to talk to McCarty about a few things. We said to him, 'Listen, man, either you get yourself together and learn how to pronounce that word, or...!' "
McCarty remembers the incident. "They asked me about my enunciation of the word and I told them I do not do this intentionally. I told them that inopportunely I might say it that way, but I didn't mean it that way, that it was no reflection on their race or their characters and that I would try to change. But I couldn't seem to get out of the habit—I was born in the South, maybe that's what caused it. So they suggested that I say 'colored.' I tried that, too."
For George McCarty the problem cannot seem a very significant one, and he certainly has no conception of how important it is to the players. He waxes enthusiastic about the exploits of his black athletes and continually reminds the listener that under his direction Texas Western fielded the first integrated team in Texas. Considering the racial attitudes of the state of Texas at the time (the proud University of Texas still has not fielded a single Negro varsity football player), McCarty has good reason to cite this fact. He is under the impression that the Negroes at UTEP think the world of him, and he can see why. To some he may be vaguely reminiscent of the apocryphal Southern Senator who wrote a book about the greatness of the black race and titled it: "Niggers I Have Known."
Indeed, the establishment of the University of Texas at El Paso seems to share McCarty's attitude. Most of the school's administrators and teachers see themselves in the avant-garde in Negro-white relations. Dr. Ray speaks of the national reputations the school has built for its black athletes. Dean of Students Jimmy Walker tells of the special consideration given to the problems of the Negroes on the campus. He is not insincere, nor is Dr. Ray, nor, for that matter, are McCarty or Jim Bowden. These are not evil men. They may admit, as does Dr. Ray, that it is difficult to disentangle oneself from the prejudices of one's childhood, but they feel that they are making genuine headway.
"They just don't understand," says Willie Cager, one of the basketball team's co-captains, shaking his head sadly. "Prejudice is prejudice. Either you've got it or you ain't. They got it."
"A single drop of prejudice poisons a man," said Harry Edwards in a recent speech on the UTEP campus. "A Negro who encounters a single act of discrimination seals off his mind."
Willie Worsley, the other basketball captain, keeps a Countee Cullen poem handy to make the point:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.
From "On These I Stand" by Countee Cullen.
¬© 1925 and 1953. Reprinted by permission Harper & Row
The University of Texas at El Paso is a tough place for a black man, but it is not easy to tell where the prejudice originates, because—perhaps like a lot of the rest of America—everybody is busy attributing it to everybody else. The athletic department and the coaches explain certain acts of prejudice, such as clamping down on Negroes who date white girls, in terms of the El Paso business community. "El Paso isn't ready for interracial dating," the coaches warn their black athletes. But when one seeks an explanation from El Paso businessmen, one is told that it makes no difference to them whom the Negroes date, so long as the school wins a few ball games now and then. One wonders if UTEP is following the town's prejudices or the town is following the school's. Whichever, it is immaterial to the 40 or so black scholarship athletes. Almost unanimously, they regard the place as a ghetto. "We were suckered into coming here," says Willie Cager. "I come from the toughest, blackest, poorest part of the Bronx. I won't be unhappy to go back."
All the standard methods of dealing with black athletes are used at UTEP, and in sum they add up to the same old story: the black athlete is there to perform, not to get an education, and when he has used up his eligibility he is out. "The coaches say that education is the important thing and sports comes second," says Willie Cager, "but you soon learn better. They want you to win first. All the sports requirements—practice, schedules, road trips—come first."
Says Dave Lattin, one of the seven top Negroes on the 1966 championship team, all of whom thus far have failed to get degrees from UTEP: "If you played basketball you spent most of your time in the gym, on and off season. You didn't get a chance to spend much time studying. So you'd drop behind your classmates. The only way you could stay in the ball game was to kind of lighten up on your courses. Basketball would average out to about 40 hours a week—we practiced seven days a week. During the season we got no days off. It was just like a job. It's easier in the pros."
To maintain such a schedule and stay eligible the Negro athlete could take certain steps. "You could switch to Mickey Mouse courses, where you don't work too hard," says Willie Cager. "I had to keep taking courses like music and art, and now I'm a senior and I'm 21 hours short of graduation. The worst part of it is that the courses I have to make up are things like biology and kinesiology that I have to have for a degree in physical education."
Certain "friendly" professors can be counted on to assist the athlete, black or white. Willie Worsley speaks highly of a teacher "who understands the problems of Negroes, and he don't embarrass anybody, illiterate or not. Somebody told him that Negro athletes needed help in their grades and we are all making B's in his class now."
Then there are the professors who can turn difficult courses into snaps. "They give the same tests from year to year," says Dr. John West, head of the English department, "and they never have a new thought. They use the same notes, the same approaches. And tests that are returned are made available. It would only be natural if some of these turned up in the athletic area."
Tutors can be helpful, too. Says Cager: "If a kid isn't smart enough or has too bad a background but they need him to play a sport, the tutor sometimes will do his work for him."
Dr. Joseph Ray is no bumbling administrator in a hermetically sealed ivory tower; he is not unaware of some of the practices that have gone on at UTEP. But he argues that "the principal thing is that as Negroes their preparation before they came here was not as dependable as it should be." He admits that the university has exploited some of its black athletes, but no more so than all universities exploit all athletes, black or white. "I can think of one Negro athlete who they recognized would not be able to stay eligible if he took all the required courses, and so they kept him eligible. Our athletic council took notice that this sort of thing was going on and it's being terminated. It's being terminated. But that happens at a lot of places. We're not the only ones that ever did it."
UTEP is not the only school that ever slipped a little extra financial assistance to its athletes, either; the practice is widespread and almost inevitable because NCAA rules are so stern. "We're supposed to get $10 a month plus room and board and tuition and books," says Willie Cager. "Who can live on that? We're all in bad financial shape, but there's no use discussing it. You know yourself that the alumni are always putting up money to help the athletes. What burns us is that somehow it never reaches the black athletes here. We never see that money."
"I'm not asking for money to be slipped to me," says All-America Linebacker Fred Carr, first-round draft choice of the Green Bay Packers. "All I'm saying is that if there's some extra money being provided to help athletes through financial binds, then it should be used by black and white, the way it is everyplace else. Now, I know that some of the white athletes get this kind of help, but the Negroes don't. I'd get a note in my box saying, 'Nice game.' I'll buy that; I'm not looking for money. But then don't give it to the white players."
"If a Negro looks for help he doesn't find it," says Bob Beamon, the best long jumper in the world. "I have a 4-year-old car that needs $300 worth of repairs. I don't know where I'm gonna get the money to fix it. If I were the white long-jump champion that car would be fixed like magic."
The problem with the car would not have disturbed Beamon if he could walk to the campus, "but there's no decent housing for the married Negro anywhere near the school, so my wife and I live two miles away, and I have to have that car. I go around borrowing money, practically begging people for money, and I wind up in debt."
"A Negro will be more apt to get in debt here than a white athlete," says Willie Worsley. "I'll tell you how they'll help a Negro; they'll send him down to Household Finance. In other words, they'll help you get in debt. It wouldn't be so bad if they'd give us more help getting jobs in the summertime."
"I went in two months before vacation break to ask McCarty to help me find a job, the way he does with the white players," says Halfback Willie Fields. "He said he didn't know of anything, but I might be able to get a job raking leaves or something like that. But I know a couple of white players who asked him to find them a job, and he got them jobs the next day at $3 an hour."
According to the Negroes, their wives are treated the same way. "My wife is a qualified secretary, bilingual in English and Spanish," Beamon says. "They got her a job at $1.35 an hour lifting boxes." Fred Carr tells about a Negro athlete whose wife spent three months looking for a job with the assistance of the UTEP athletic department. "They were having a hell of a time financially," Carr says. "And then in comes a white athlete, a junior-college transfer, and they got his wife a job in three days. They say that the Negro wives can't get jobs because they are not qualified. Well, most of them are." Unstated here, of course, is the fact that lack of job opportunities for Negroes—especially in the South—is an oppressive national problem, be the Negro a linebacker, shoe salesman or pipe fitter. Nonetheless, the UTEP athletic department seems not to have made the extra effort that obviously is required.
Harry Edwards and his staff of bereted, beaded and militant assistants swarmed all over UTEP the weekend after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination, and one of them draped himself across a chair in the Sheraton Motor Inn on Mesa Street and intoned carefully: "What it gets down to is sex, the same old story. Isn't it funny that whenever you make a thorough study of the problems of white and black together, it always comes out s-e-x? What a problem it must give the recruiter from this school. They're committed to using black athletes to get their name before the public, right? So this poor recruiter has to go to the Bronx and Harlem and convince Negroes that of all the places they could go, El Paso is the best. Now what is the first thing that enters the kid's mind, any kid's mind? Are there any girls? Well, what the hell is the poor recruiter going to say? That there are hardly any black women in El Paso? That there are only a few black girls at the university? So he has to fudge around, tell a few lies. He may even hint that the atmosphere is pretty relaxed down there in the Southwest, and nobody would mind if he dated a white girl. After all, that's where America begins, out there in Marlboro Country. So the kid signs his letter of intent, and then he's hooked. He gets on the campus and he finds out that if he dates a white girl it's his ass."
In a way, Edwards' lieutenant was exaggerating, for it does not all come down to sex, and he knew it. But, for the black athlete on the majority of America's campuses, what it does come down to is loneliness, exclusion and the consequent destruction of the Negro's pride. The inability of the white to understand this distinction just adds another element to the frustration that the black athlete feels.
"Listen," says Bob Wallace, who is from Phoenix, Ariz., "let me try to get one thing straight. We don't want to date white girls. What the hell is so great about a white girl? But we do want to date. Anybody. Black girls, purple girls, striped girls. And if there's nobody else available, then white girls. But they make it seem like a cardinal sin on this campus—after they've got you here."
One day a pair of recruiters were trying to convince Willie Worsley of the Bronx that he should take his wizardry with the basketball to UTEP. "We went out for a drive," Worsley remembers, "me and my father and the two guys. I wasn't too interested in what they were talking about, so I came straight to the point. I said, 'How is the social life?' One of the recruiters said, 'It's great, the sun's shining all year round." Then they started talking about something else, but I still wasn't satisfied, so I asked 'em again, 'Well, how's the social life down there?' And this recruiter, he must've thought I was stupid, he said, 'Oh, it's nice, you know, the sun shines every day.' Anything that had to do with racial prejudice, they ducked. But I was young and maybe I was stupid, because here I am. But this was my last resort. If I had had any other possibility, I wouldn't have come here."
Les Miller, a handsome, young part-Negro, part-Arawak Indian from Nassau in the Bahamas, accepted a full athletic scholarship to UTEP, and when he arrived on campus he quickly learned that despite his reddish coloring and chiseled features he was a "nigger."
"When I was a senior in high school," Miller says, "I had a lot of offers from college track coaches. But the man from UTEP talked faster than any of the others. He told me how great this place was. He said the people were nice and there were lots of girls, and there was no racial prejudice of any kind. So I figured it must be like Nassau, where people get along together, and I accepted without even coming here to look around. Me and my roommate, Jerri Wisdom, came here, and we learned fast. We'd see a white girl and say hello, and she'd act like she had her ears covered, or she'd say, 'Oh, Jesus,' and split. And the Negro girls—well, there aren't any Negro girls. So we talked to somebody in the athletic department about this, and he said, 'Oh, don't worry about that, boys. If that's what you want, just go across the border to Juarez. They practically give that stuff away over there.' That's what he thought of us. First, that all we wanted was sex, and second, that sex with those scummy $2 tramps from Juàrez was good enough for us!"
Trackman Jerri Wisdom is also a handsome Bahamian of mixed ancestry, and he is just as bitter as his roommate. "The social life every night is I come back to my room and look at Les Miller's face."
"Somebody asked us if the white girls don't walk with us from class to class," says Miller. "I said, 'Hey, man, what do you want: blood on the campus?' "
No single member of the school's athletic administration will admit to being dead set against interracial dating, but someone must be, because no subject has caused more trouble on the campus in recent years. According to the black athletes en masse, there is not one coach or athletic-department member who will countenance black-and-white dating. Athlete after athlete tells of being called in and ordered to stop or risk loss of his scholarship. The establishment vaguely admits the charge, with considerable qualifying and backing and filling, and just as vaguely puts the blame on the downtown businessmen, the big contributors to the athletic program. "Some guy that's giving money to the athletic department calls the athletic director," says President Ray, "and he says, 'O.K., now I've helped for the last time. It just made me sick to my stomach to see that interracial dating going on. Now let me see you stop it!' "
George McCarty addresses himself to the problem: "One of our biggest detriments or handicaps with the nigger athlete right now is the shortage of, you know, girls. It's their normal field just like everybody else.... I'll tell you what we try to do when they try to start dating white girls. It's my opinion we try to be real objective with 'em. I have set and talked with 'em before, and I'm saying that society per se in this country is really not ready for this and that really it's not accepted on either side...."
Says Football Coach Bobby Dobbs: "Certainly I'd say I wouldn't advise interracial dating, because I don't think it would be to the athlete's best interest as far as his future happiness is concerned.... No, I don't know what I'd do if I had a Negro athlete going with a white girl and he wouldn't stop."
Says Basketball Coach Don Haskins: "I've told my athletes that personally I couldn't care less about interracial dating, but you have people downtown who might not like it.... I've told the kids that I can't stop them, but I think that, well, I think that it hurts them in the eyes of the people."
Says Track Coach Wayne Vandenburg: "Sure, it's a problem, the woman situation. I don't deny that. But isn't this the same everywhere in the country? This is their problem."
One might not want to stuff the statements of these five men into a time capsule and present them to the people of the 25th century as enlightened American opinion on interracial dating in 1968, but one cannot fail to notice that they do attempt to speak with a certain reasonableness and balance. According to the black athletes of UTEP, however, the talk is hot air. They say the university's sports establishment throws out all reason and balance where interracial dating is concerned and begins lashing about with a meat cleaver. Pressure is applied all along the line. If the Negro refuses to shape up and confine his dating to the handful of black women in El Paso, the blacks contend, or simply stop dating entirely, he might find himself on the next train out of town. The Negroes like to cite the case of Ollie Ledbetter, a basketball player who refused to stop dating a white girl he had known before coming to UTEP. It was not too long before he was having trouble with Coach Haskins. Shortly after that he was gone.
Coach Haskins, a husky Oklahoman who seems to overpower his small office, is in constant motion, like most of the UTEP coaches. When he discusses the social lives of his black athletes, he drums the edge of the desk with his fingers and acts as though a coach who would start five Negroes in a nationally televised basketball game should not have to answer such questions. "I run Ledbetter off because he wouldn't break a sweat," he says. "He was a real good boy, but lazier than hell. Here at home where all the people are hollering, he'd give you a real good effort, but on the road he wouldn't break a sweat."
Haskins insists that Ledbetter's social activities had nothing to do with his departure, but there is hardly a Negro on the campus who agrees. At one time or another, almost every black scholarship athlete at UTEP has dated a white girl, and in almost every case the coaches have applied pressure. Says Dave Lattin: "One day Coach Haskins called me in and told me that somebody had said I was holding hands with a Mexican girl downstairs in the SUB [Student Union Building]. I told him, 'Well, listen, if I was gonna hold hands with somebody I would do it right out in the open.' And he said, 'Well, you know that you and I would fall out if you did something like that.' Right then we were something like 18 and 0 for the season, and he's all hot and bothered about me holding hands with a Mexican girl!"
"The coaches always tell you the same thing: that the town's not ready for it," says Fred Carr. "But I think it's the other way around: I think the town is ready for it, but the coaches aren't. I think the tail is wagging the dog. What the hell, I come from Phoenix, Ariz., and nobody thought nothing of dating white girls over there. Phoenix isn't that far from El Paso. The people aren't that different. But our coaches are mostly Southern types, and interracial dating is a big scandal to them. When you date a white girl, you get in trouble and she gets bad-mouthed all over the campus."
"I used to talk to a white girl," Willie Cager says, "but one day she said to me that she couldn't talk to me anymore, because some of the professors had been cornering her and telling her that she would get a bad name."
"If we show up at a party the white girls have to leave," says Bob Wallace. "If they stay they'll get bad-mouthed. One time we showed up at a party and there was a white girl there and she stayed. One of the white football players went back on the campus and called her all kinds of dirty names."
Says Dr. John West: "I have a grader who cares a lot about these Negro athletes. She grades in this huge class of 130, and she takes the roll for me. She says that people look oddly at her, and I have heard a comment or two to the effect that 'I think old Sonya has fallen in love with the Negro race' or something like that. But I don't think we have any professors who would give a girl a bad mark because she was dating Negroes. I don't think it goes that far."
According to at least one coed, Professor West is wrong. She is blonde and she is beautiful and she dated Phil Harris, who was a legend on the UTEP campus, a sort of black Paul Bunyan, towering 6'10" into the dry, desert air on feet so big that. "It requires the hide of two steers and a yearling to shoe him," as last year's basketball yearbook pointed out. The yearbook also advised that, "Harris holds a lot of 'ifs' for the Miners. If he can improve his shooting; if he can take up a lot of slack inside and if his defense and knee improves, the Miners could come on stronger than frozen cement this fall.... He is the only experienced big man Coach Don Haskins can summon."
The Miners did not come on stronger than frozen cement. They compiled a so-so 14-9 record and Phil Harris, the 21-year-old son of a middle-class Negro couple from Rensselaer, N.Y., was kicked out of school.
The record as to why Harris was expelled is vague. No UTEP official cares to come up with a precise answer. "Phil never did anything bad," says George McCarty. "He was continually doing the marginal." There was a matter of parking tickets, which Harris claims he did not start getting until he began dating a blonde, and being put on report for dormitory violations, and an ashtray he may or may not have thrown and a remark in a store he may or may not have made. Presumably, all of this is buried in the files of the disciplinary hearing held on his case. But one thing he definitely did do was get engaged to his green-eyed Caucasian beauty and show her off proudly around the campus.
"It wasn't that Phil didn't know his place," says a white teammate. "He knew it, but he defied it."
Harris' refusal to follow the wishes of the UTEP establishment may have had nothing to do with his expulsion. UTEP officials repeatedly say that it did not. All that is clear is that Harris, already on campus probation, became involved in an argument with a dorm manager on a Saturday, and an ashtray was broken—Harris says he accidentally knocked it off a table. On Monday morning he was told there would be a hearing on his case that afternoon, and a few hours later, having ignored the warnings he says he got from coaches and George McCarty that his pro basketball career would be affected and that he would be asked to leave school if he didn't stop dating his girl, he was through at UTEP.
During this period his fiancée was having predictable troubles with her friends on campus—but some surprising other difficulties, too. A 21-year-old member of a well-to-do Eastern family, she had been maintaining a good average in a complex course of study when she heard that a certain professor had said he would never pass a white girl who dated a Negro. And, in this case at least, he did not. She says her marks were all A's and B's, with one C, and then suddenly came an F. "I was so upset I looked at somebody else's tests and lab reports and my work compared well," she remembers. "I got a low mark in my finals, so I took my paper and my textbook to the teacher and showed him, for example, where one of my 'wrong' answers was almost an exact paraphrase of the text. He told me that was too bad, that he disagreed with the text. I took the whole thing to the head of the department and he told me, 'You got what you deserved.' "
A member of the faculty committee said he would be happy to sum up the Phil Harris case, provided, as usual, that his name not be mentioned. "White guys get it tougher than Phil Harris got it," he said. "We leaned over backward to be fair and not to be racist in his case. The white girl complicates things, obviously, but not in our minds. Not in ours, really, but in other people's." Wherever one turns at UTEP, it always seems that it is "other people" who are prejudiced.
You can see the Negro students of UTEP almost any day of the week drinking Cokes and playing cards at the last two tables in the rear of the spa, pool hall and bowling alley in the basement of the Student Union Building. If you could not tell them by their color and by the fact that they are voluntarily sitting "in the back of the bus," you could tell them by their bored looks. A high percentage of them are scholarship athletes, "professional amateurs."
"They told me that college would be a rewarding experience," says Fred Carr. "They said I'd meet people, I'd travel. Well, I did, but I still call college the time of my greatest suffering. I came to college and discovered prejudice."
"There is not a thing that goes on here that I like," says Bob Wallace. "We don't have nowhere to go. After every game we are supposed to stay around the dorm playing cards. Nothing to do. Nothing to do. These are supposed to be the best years of our lives, and it turns out to be a drag."
"It's a funny place," says Dave Lattin, now one year removed from the campus. "On the basketball court you're groovy people, but off the court you're animals. Even the Mexicans look down on you."
"We can't get into the fraternities." says Jerri Wisdom. "I was so innocent, I went through a frat rush. One day a guy called me aside and said, 'Hey, man, forget it!' I knew a Jewish kid who was hanging around with some Negro kids and the guys in the fraternity he had pledged told him to cut it out. That's before they found out he was Jewish. Then they dropped him altogether. They told him to go find a Jewish fraternity. Me, I was so dumb I kept trying to get in, but I didn't make it."
Jimmy Walker, a conscientious dean of students, says, "I asked Kelly Myrick, one of our scholarship Negroes, just what's the problem. He said, 'Not being accepted.' Well, don't tell them this, but this is a problem that's gonna take a while to solve. But you can't say, 'Wait,' to these people, because they're not interested. They cut you off, and I don't know that I blame them. It's how people look at them, how people look. What are you gonna do? Can we go out and give our white students orders: 'Now when the Negroes come by, you look this way'? The complaints are valid, but it's a son of a gun to do anything about."
Not even the black heroes of the 1966 championship basketball team are spared the "looks," the double standard that is visited upon Negroes. "After that final game in College Park, Maryland," says Willie Worsley, "we came back to the campus and there were 2,000 people waiting for us at the airport. They paraded us through town and everybody was going crazy, cheering and hollering, and then somebody had the team to a banquet and we all ate steak. But that was about the end of it. We were never campus heroes. We were never invited to mixers or anything like that. If there was a banquet for the team, it was always kept to the team. You play basketball and that's it. When the game's over they want you to come back to the dormitory and stay out of sight."
Says Willie Cager: "The people here don't come right out and say that they hate your guts and all you can do is play basketball and nothing else, but that is how it shapes up."
The school's black football players are no more contented. Their descriptions of the situation on the football field embody all the complaints of black football players on campuses throughout the country: they say their injuries are viewed with suspicion, they are the butt of jokes, they are stacked into "Negro" positions and scorned by teammates and classmates. When Fred Carr joined the team in 1965 he and a teammate, Eugene Jackson (now with the Cleveland Browns), became so discouraged that one day they just left school. Coach Bobby Dobbs had to enlist the assistance of the Arizona Highway Patrol to get them back. Carr remembers it as a scene from an old movie:
"At that time the white guys on the team didn't have the ability of the guys on my high school team. And the prejudice was pitiful. Plus the fact that I was dating a white girl back home in Phoenix and the football players found out about it. I had my girl's picture on my desk in the dorm, and the white players would come in and stand there and stare at it. One day Coach Dobbs took me aside and told me, 'There's too many girls in the world to be worried about one.' Somebody else in the athletic department told me I was a potential outrage to the El Paso community. If I dated a white girl back home, then I might start dating white girls here. So Eugene Jackson and I talked to one of the assistant football coaches about the whole situation and he said, 'Look, when you're on the field you're my property, but when you're off the field you can do anything you want.' That was all right with us, but we found out that Coach Dobbs didn't feel the same way. This was his empire. He wasn't gonna let us mess up his world.
"So me and Eugene packed up and headed for the Arizona line. The man at the inspection station at the border stopped us and said, 'What's your name?' We told him and he said, 'You guys wait here, the highway patrolman will be here in a minute.' So the highway patrolman came over and said he had a phone call for us to make. We called the number and it was Bobby Dobbs, and he talked us into coming back."
One Wednesday early in the 1967 football season the team was scheduled to attend a scouting-report meeting, but the Negro members staged a sit-in in the lobby of the athletic dormitory. It was probably the first college-football boycott, and it was well hushed up. Dobbs, a former assistant coach at West Point, hurried over to see what was going on and was met by a solid wall of black dissent and complaint. Every black member of the team was there, and All-Americas Fred Carr and Charlie West were among the leaders. Says Carr: "We told him that we wanted to date whoever we wanted to, because there weren't any Negro girls to date, and we asked him to use his influence to get some Negro girls into the student body, maybe on scholarship. Why do all the scholarship Negroes have to be athletes? We told him about the wives' situation, that Leroy Johnson's wife, who was a trained private secretary, was running off mimeograph papers for $40 a week, while Billy Stevens' [the team's white quarterback] wife and all them was making $300, $400 a month and Billy still drawing $72 a month from the school. We told him we didn't like the way he and his coaches treat people on the field: making Negroes the butt of jokes, kicking them around and stacking them and treating them bad. We told him the food was spoiled, but everybody complains about that. We told him nobody was cleaning up the rooms of the Negro athletes. We had to do our own. There was a Mexican maid assigned up there, but she wouldn't come to the Negro rooms but once a month, and she was doing the white guys' rooms three or four times a week.
"We tried to hit him right where it counted. In the wallet. We told him we were ready to walk out, and he knew it. So when it was all over he said that we should have come to see him in a committee, not mobbed all over him like this. He said he would do his level best to see what he could do about our complaints. And he said he thought we should keep this among ourselves. We agreed not to tell the papers or nobody—that was a mistake.
"So the upshot of the whole thing was nothing. Not a single thing happened. And a little while later we began to hear rumbles that they were going to stop recruiting Negroes. One member of the athletic department made the statement that from now on the only Negroes they'd recruit would be stars like O.J. Simpson. He said they were through with the so-so Negro athletes, they used up too much of the grub and they caused too much trouble. And it wasn't very long before the whole way they recruit here seemed to change. Instead of seeing nothing but Negro kids coming in to look around the campus, all of a sudden you began seeing a lot of white kids. So I think they are cutting down on the Negroes."
Bobby Dobbs discusses the affair with the air of a man probing his memory for the details of something that happened eons ago and was not terribly significant, anyway. "Yes," he says, "they had a few complaints. Food was one of them, and certainly I listened to them. They asked for a few things to improve their living conditions, and certainly I listened to them.... And they asked me to use my influence to bring some Negro girls here on scholarship. That's a common complaint on campuses. But it's difficult to alter. One thing I did apologize for: I had made a remark to the team one day to the effect that 'we're all free, white and 21,' and then I realized what I had said and I added quickly, 'Some of us!' I didn't mean that as a racial remark at all; it's just one of those things that pop out, and I told them I was sorry about that, very sorry."
There was a time when the black members of UTEP's track team were considered the original good guys around the campus. Let the football team gripe and complain like a bunch of children; let the basketball players lament about how they were being treated like animals instead of the ebony gods that they thought they were; one could always depend on fellows like Long Jumper Bob Beamon, a 21-year-old Negro sophomore, and Dave Morgan, a feisty little ex-Marine quarter-miler, and all the other blacks on the squad. The track team was together, one solid unit. Under the direction of 26-year-old Coach Wayne Vandenburg (billed by the school's athletic department publicist as "the fastest mouth in the West"), the Miners had an outside chance to become NCAA champions, if not this year, then certainly next. The track squad was the pride of El Paso. Because of it, the once unknown school now had its second shot at a national championship in three years.
The high point of this interracial cinder romance came when the UTEP track team went to New York's Madison Square Garden for the annual New York Athletic Club track meet last February. A big boycott was on, the point of which was simple: the NYAC does not admit Negroes to its membership, but each year it makes a potful of money by exhibiting star Negroes at its track meet; why should Negro amateur athletes perform for such a cause?
When word got out that the UTEP blacks would defy the boycott and compete, militants and prominent athletes alike tightened down on them. There were threatening phone calls. Harry Edwards announced that the team members would get to New York, see the picket line and quit. Otherwise, said Edwards, he could not be responsible for anything that happened to them. Rap Brown said that Madison Square Garden ought to be blown up. "My boys were scared to death," says Coach Vandenburg. "I said to each one, 'Listen, you don't have to go through with this.' "
Why did they?
Beamon says that the Negro trackmen had long meetings and discussed the situation thoroughly. "It got down to this," he says. "The NYAC is prejudiced against a lot of different kinds of people, including Jews, and if they're that way, why should we get excited about it? What happens if we boycott and they agree to admit Negroes but they still keep out the Jews? What have we accomplished?"
If the logic is tortured, it is possibly because it conceals another more basic reason why the Negroes voted to compete. Most of them are from the Northeast. "O.K., let's admit it," says Beamon. "We hadn't been home for a long time, and we were miserable in El Paso, and here was a chance to visit our people with all expenses paid."
The black athletes of UTEP crossed the Madison Square Garden picket line and performed under intense pressure from Negro militants. The showings of Beamon and Morgan and others were understandably subpar. But when they returned to El Paso, they were heroes. They were the Negroes who had stood up to the militants. They were "our boys." "They told us, 'Great job, wonderful!' " says Dave Morgan. "They said that we really stood up for our rights."
But the New York trip started the Negroes thinking. Beamon, an introverted and melancholy young man who is tasting his first severe racial prejudice in El Paso, began engaging in long discussions with Dave Morgan and a few of the other black trackmen after the NYAC meet. Morgan, who is intelligent, older than the rest and outspoken, had come to his own decision quickly: that a stand would have to be made against some of the practices at UTEP. But Beamon, the other natural leader of the black runners and jumpers, continued to vacillate. He acted like a man who could not understand what was happening around him, like a man who stands in front of a truck and cannot assimilate the fact that it is bearing down on him. He would blurt out naive questions like: "Can you explain something to me: How can people hate each other?" and "Why is it that white people are so prejudiced against colored people?" He would sit around and write poems addressed to the white race:
How many days of sadness must I spend
To get hatred into gladness?
And tell me how much sorrow must I spend
To get a future for tomorrow?
This must be a proud nation of crudeness.
This world used to mean so very much.
Why did you change my happiness to misery and heartbreak?
How must I be lonely?
Why can't you love me and want me
Until the end of time?
Then came the assassination of Martin Luther King. It ended the vacillation and brooding and brought the Negro trackmen into a cohesive unit. At the request of their coach, they competed in the Texas Relays that weekend. When they returned to El Paso they saw Harry Edwards very briefly as he was leaving, but his influence on their actions was not nearly as great as UTEP authorities would like to believe. As soon as they got back to the campus they held a secret meeting.
Next on the schedule was an Easter week track meet against Utah State and Brigham Young University, at Provo, Utah. BYU is a Mormon school, and the Book of Mormon specifies an inferior role for the Negro. Most of the blacks decided to beg off the track meet. "There were about a dozen reasons," says Dave Morgan. "The Mormons teach that Negroes are descended from the devil. As a reason for the track team's boycott it may sound like a small thing to a white person, but who the hell wants to go up there and run your tail off in front of a bunch of spectators who think you've got horns. And it was Easter week, and it seemed to us that there was an obvious connection between the martyrdom of Jesus and the martyrdom of Dr. King. To a white it might be nothing; to us it had great significance. And on top of all of that, there was the general fact that the Negro is treated like something out of the jungle here, and we wanted to express ourselves about that."
On the Monday night before the meet with Brigham Young, nine Negro trackmen arrived at the small apartment of Coach Vandenburg and presented their grievances. According to the young and outspoken coach: "They mentioned all kinds of crazy things. I said, 'Fellows, let's get to the point! Man, you're keeping me up all night!' But there was no point! Nothing! When they left at about 11:30 I felt that everything was settled. But 10 minutes later there's a knock on my door and it's Kelly Myrick, the hurdler. He says, 'We're boycotting.' I said, 'Who are you speaking for?' He said the whole nine who were in the room."
On Tuesday and Wednesday the recalcitrant athletes showed up at track practice, and Vandenburg began to entertain hope that the boycott was off. When he heard informally that the athletes were going to refuse to head for Utah he prepared a statement saying that they were, in effect, quitting the team.
On Thursday night Assistant Athletic Director Bowden talked to the boycotting athletes for three hours. According to School President Joseph Ray, "Jim told them what would happen if they went through with their plan. He told them that he didn't necessarily disagree with them on principle, but he said they were paying too big a price to make their point." According to the athletes, Bowden told them flatly that they would be off the track squad and lose their scholarships if they refused to go to Provo. After the session with Bowden, Coach Vandenburg asked the Negroes if they wanted to have another talk with him. They said they had done all their talking. The track team left for BYU Friday morning with eight Negroes staying behind. At Provo the team was joined by Negro Half-miler John Nichols of Watts, an art major and a sensitive young man who was in sympathy with the boycotters but wanted to see for himself the situation at Brigham Young.
Once there, things became so tense, according to Nichols, that he got into a fistfight just before the meet with a teammate who kept calling him "black boy." "I knocked him on his ass," says Nichols. Now Nichols, too, refused to compete and was off the track team.
The press was told that the suspension of the black track men was for the current school year and that next year's athletic scholarships would be discussed when the time came. But each of the boycotting Negroes claims he was told privately that his scholarship would terminate at the end of the year; he should look elsewhere. Coach Vandenburg took a reporter aside and said, "They're finished. There's no special rules for blacks and whites or greens and pinks. I'm hired to do the best job according to my ability, to decide all these things for everybody, and I decided. I didn't kick them off; they quit."
President Ray and the faculty athletic council declined to veto Vandenburg's action. "If there is a case for compassion," Dr. Ray said, "it would be up to the coach. Nobody is going to tell him what to do. I regret this very much. These are good boys. But they either collectively or individually hoodwinked themselves into the conviction that we wouldn't let them all go. A whole lot of pushing has been done by Negroes, and that pushing is going to hasten the day when your Negro comes close to equality. But I think in this case they paid a hell of a price to win their point.... This is a price that no college athletes in this country have ever yet paid for a point on this issue. They were laying down their collegiate athletic lives, and they surely knew it."
The black athletes' difficulties did not end with the loss of athletic scholarships. Bob Beamon's wife had a decent job at last (Vandenburg reportedly found it for her within an hour when it was raised as a boycott issue the previous Monday), and on the Monday morning after the boycott she started off to her first day of work. Beamon drove her to the office and went back home. The phone rang. "Bob?" his wife said. "You better come get me." He hurried back and picked her up. She told him that her new boss had taken her aside and said that he understood Beamon was no longer affiliated with UTEP. "I told him you were still at the school," Mrs. Beamon said, "and he told me, 'Look, I can't get involved in this thing. You can't have the job.' "
That afternoon an officer of a bank called Beamon and said, "Bob, I heard you lost your scholarship. Will you be able to pay your bills?" Several other callers asked the same question. Beamon says: "Was it pressure? I don't know. But I do know that the whole town was against us."
"We're all alone in this thing," John Nichols says.
The present plan of the disbarred Negro trackmen is to show up on the campus at registration time next fall, just like the other undergraduates. "We're gonna lay our $87 on the table," Beamon says, "and register for class. That's the fee for residents of the state of Texas, and we're gonna say, 'Here we are, we Texans, and we're paying our own way.' " (Their plan has a flaw: most of them probably cannot qualify as Texas residents.)
"We're not gonna run away from what's being shoved in our face here," says Nichols. "We'll scrape, scrounge and borrow, but we're coming back. Next year at registration time they're gonna find out damn fast who the 'house niggers' are."
As for Coach Vandenburg, he remained inflexible on the subject, but one could see that underneath he had been shattered by what had happened. Vandenburg is an earnest young man from Cicero, Ill., and he works harder than any of his runners to bring athletic recognition to the University of Texas at El Paso. This was only his second year on the campus, and he was all primed to win the NCAA track-and-field championship, a tremendous accomplishment.
"Look what happened," he says. "Look what this thing did to the track team. We lost the world indoor record holder in the long jump, the school record holder in the hurdle, the school record holder in the quarter mile, the freshman hurdle champion, a couple of outstanding intermediate runners, a fine long-jump and triple-jump man—and not one of them seniors. We had aspirations of winning the NCAA championship this year. At least we'd have been second or third. Track and Field News picked us third, three points behind second place. Now we're not gonna win anything except a few dual meets. It kills us!"
Wayne Vandenburg, himself only four or five years older than most of his athletes, squares his shoulders and raises his voice. "O.K., it's over now," he says. "Next year's another year."
So it is, for better or for worse, but it is doubtful that it will be merely another year of the status quo at UTEP, or at any American college that recruits black athletes. College administrations, college coaches and college student bodies will all be hearing loud and clear, the words of Bob Beamon, who is not a bad poet for a world champion:
How many days of sadness must I spend....
The Negro in professional sport: he is one of the elite few who make it to the top, but once there he finds that much of the discrimination he has suffered persists. He must perform better than the white, quotas restrict his opportunities and his rewards are less for achieving more.