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CHOOSING SIDES

Nov. 27, 1989
Nov. 27, 1989

Table of Contents
Nov. 27, 1989

East Germany
Korbut & Retton
Conway High
Reggie White
Zina Garrison
Shawn Kemp
Sweetheart
Point After

CHOOSING SIDES

The town of Conway, S.C., has been torn apart by a racial dispute involving two high school quarterbacks

One day last April, Chuck Jordan, the football coach at Conway High in Conway, S.C., called Carlos Hunt, a quarterback, into his office. Spring drills were a few weeks away, and among Conway's 10,000 denizens, there was a sweet anticipation that the fall might bring the Tigers their first state title.

This is an article from the Nov. 27, 1989 issue Original Layout

Carlos also had reason to feel elated. Before the '88 season, Jordan had named him the starting quarterback, and Carlos had guided the Tigers to an 8-4 record. He completed 37 of 92 passes for 605 yards, with six touchdowns and five interceptions. Approaching his senior year Carlos was so excited about his assignment that he had had the letters QB and his number, 7, inscribed on his class ring. Carlos envisioned himself leading a victory parade down Highway 501 through the middle of his proud hometown, the state Class 4-A trophy in his grasp.

But Jordan had not been pleased with Carlos's performance at quarterback. A Tiger football captain in 1974, Jordan, 32, had returned to Conway in '83 as the coach and athletic director. His stubborn, uncompromising style helped revive a team that had gone 25-38 during the six previous seasons. From 1983 through '88 Jordan's teams put together a 51-18 record. Jordan demanded a disciplined, error-free offense, and in Carlos he saw a quarterback too moody to lead and too irresponsible to follow orders. On a couple of occasions Carlos had raised Jordan's hackles by running with the ball, instead of handing it off as he had been instructed.

So, after discussing the matter with his staff, Jordan told Carlos, who's 6'3", 175 pounds, of his intention to replace him with 5'9", 155-pound Mickey Wilson Jr., the son of an assistant coach, who had played sparingly in 1988. Carlos is black; Mickey is white. Jordan explained to Carlos that college recruiters wanted to see him play defensive back, and that shifting him to defense would not only benefit him but would also be to "the betterment of the team."

Jordan says that Carlos was satisfied with the switch—in fact, relieved. Carlos says that he loved playing quarterback and that he left the meeting that day thinking he would still be allowed to compete for the position in preseason practice. From this disagreement between a white coach and a black player has arisen a conflict that continues to divide Conway and has inflamed age-old prejudices.

After brooding for much of the summer, Carlos decided not to accept Jordan's decision. In support of Carlos, 31 of 37 black players, 15 of them starters, decided to boycott the team for the season, which ended last Friday night with a 42-3 loss to Spring Valley. The Tigers, who were outscored 332-42, finished with a record of 1-11.

In announcing the players' decision to boycott, on Aug. 22 the Rev. H.H. Singleton, a spokesman for the striking players, said that Jordan's failure to allow Carlos an opportunity to play quarterback showed "callous and racial intolerance that seems to have bordered on racial bigotry." Says Jordan, who started a black quarterback in three of his six seasons at Conway, "As a coach, I have the right and the obligation to make personnel decisions for my team."

The head of the state Human Affairs Commission, James Clyburn, a black who investigated the dispute, finds Jordan's act "as far from racism as anything I've been involved in." William Gibson, a national spokesman for the NAACP, disagrees, saying. "Racism was involved in that a white kid would not be treated in the manner" of Carlos Hunt.

The Conway boycott has served as a rallying point for Horry County blacks, who believe they are underpaid and unempowered, and last Saturday it brought 1,000 protesters from across the state to an NAACP-led march 15 miles away in Myrtle Beach. The boycott has aroused the anger of disbelieving whites, who have thrown their support around Jordan like a warm blanket. It has led to the suspension of Singleton, an earth sciences teacher at Conway Middle School, by an all-white school board. It has sparked fistfights in the high school parking lot, graffiti on the school's building, harsh name-calling and even death threats. It has prompted one NAACP spokesman to liken Carlos to Rosa Parks, the black woman whose refusal to give up her seat to a white person on a bus touched off the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. Most of all, the players' boycott has forced nearly everyone in Conway—the county seat, and a community of real-estate developers, blue-collar workers and tobacco farmers—to latch onto a version of the truth and then to choose sides.

As in many small towns, Conway's entertainment of choice on fall Friday nights is high school football. Games are serious business in Conway. As many as 4,000 fans pay $4 a ticket for seats at the stadium—known to all as the Graveyard—and the All-Sports Booster Club has an active membership of 400. Each year the club gives Jordan $200 in cash, which he keeps in a file cabinet in his office, to use at his discretion.

It was from this fund that Jordan loaned Carlos $80 last November to help him pay for a $247.50 class ring. After Carlos missed several payment dates, Jordan, in his capacity as athletic director, suspended him from the basketball team. He told Carlos a parable his father had imparted to him: If you feed a dog and the dog bites your hand, you stop feeding the dog. Jordan then decided to reinstate Carlos and confiscate the ring until the debt was settled. Soon Carlos paid the debt.

During the summer Carlos visited relatives in Washington, D.C. While there, he received a call from his brother, David, who told him the word around town was that Mickey would definitely be the quarterback. On July 31, after returning home, Carlos confronted Jordan, who refused to reconsider his decision.

Hearing of the dispute from a friend, Singleton sent his son, Hank, to speak with Carlos. Singleton, 57, is the pastor of the Cherry Hill Baptist Church and the president of the Conway branch of the NAACP On Aug. 16, he invited Carlos, his mother, Katherine Thomas, other black players, their parents and members of the community to his home to discuss Jordan's decision. The group debated, among other things, whether racial discrimination had played a role. Players were questioned by the adults. "They said if a white quarterback had played last year and had that record, they didn't think Chuck would move him," says Thomas. The following day Thomas met with Jordan and insisted that her son be reinstated at quarterback. Jordan stood firm.

On Aug. 21, one week before the start of classes and four days before the Tigers' season opener, 30 or so black players walked into Jordan's office and asked the coach to explain his decision. Jordan outlined his reasons for the switch and told them, "You're going to play on my football team, you're going to play on my terms." The players put on their pads and practiced. Later that day the black players and hundreds of other members of the black community filed into Singleton's 54-year-old church to decide on a course of action.

After an hour and a half, Singleton asked everyone but the players to leave. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 people had gathered outside the church, spilling over the front steps onto Racepath Avenue and around the corner onto Highway 501. Thirty minutes later the players emerged to announce their decision to strike, and asked that Singleton be their spokesman. There was delirium. "Get fired up!" soon became the strikers" rallying cry.

During a 34-6 loss to Hillcrest in the opening game, the striking players sat near the south end of the Graveyard. With each Hillcrest score, they shouted, "We want Carlos!" and "It's time to take the scrubs off the field!" The cheers incensed some whites in the stands. "It was tough not to send in the police," says principal Thomas Lewis, who is white. "But they had paid their four dollars."

On Aug. 28, the first day of classes, the parents of 61 of the roughly 80 white students in Singleton's classes demanded that their children be assigned another teacher. The next day Horry County school superintendent John Dawsey suspended Singleton from his teaching duties, saying he had disrupted Conway Middle School by accusing Jordan of racist actions. In response, a handful of black parents told Dawsey that they would keep their children out of algebra classes taught by Jordan at the high school. Dawsey did not relent. Singleton subsequently sued both Dawsey and the school board, claiming his First Amendment rights to free speech had been violated. On Nov. 18, a recommendation to fire Singleton was upheld by a 5-1 vote of the school board, with one abstention. Singleton's suit has not yet been heard.

Singleton has been a powerful voice for Conway's black community for more than a decade. Throughout the fall his church has been the scene of meetings almost every weeknight. Some in Conway believe Singleton pressures the players at these sessions. However, in sworn testimony at Singleton's suspension hearing, two parents said that he never leads the meetings, and that the players are always given time alone. "Where there is parental guidance, people think it's excessive if it's black," says Singleton. "But we have to guide our children, too. We'd rather have them misguided by us than manipulated by the system."

Singleton says that Jordan's parable after Carlos was slow in repaying the $80 loan drew a demeaning comparison between Carlos and a dog, and that Carlos's suspension from the basketball team was a "personal vendetta." At one meeting Singleton told the striking players, "Chuck Jordan has no more respect for you than he does for lower animals." In Singleton's view the racism of Jordan's act was in the "stereotyping" of Carlos as a nonquarterback and in the peremptory nature of the change.

"He gave my position to someone without a tryout, and that wasn't right," says Carlos. "If the recruiters wanted to switch me, they could have done that in college. [Coach Jordan] didn't have to mess up my senior year, putting me at a position I didn't want to play."

The Conway boycott is about far more than a change in position assignments or even the suspension of Singleton. To blacks who support the players, it is a lashing out at the powerlessness they feel so deeply. Of the 61 coaches in Horry County, which is 26% black, 54 are white. No head football coach is black, nor is any athletic director. The number of black teachers and administrators in the Conway school system has dropped from 24% in 1976-77 to 11.6% in '87-88.

Says Singleton's lawyer, Armand Derfner, "To say that the boycott or Reverend Singleton created racial division is like saying a thermometer created a fever."

During the fall there have been three rallies in the county protesting Carlos's treatment and Singleton's suspension. Picketers, including a few whites, walk three times a day outside the school board offices in Conway. Thomas, a housekeeping supervisor at a Myrtle Beach Holiday Inn, joins them almost every day.

From the beginning the boycott splintered the team. The six blacks who stayed on the squad were called "zebras" by some boycotters. "I knew Coach Jordan was no racist," says a nonstriker, senior defensive lineman Edward Smalls. "People tried to come talk to my parents, but I was playing for myself."

Some white players, like senior defensive lineman Brian Rhodes, are broad-minded. "It's taught me to look at people more as people than as a color," says Brian. Yet the mood of other white players is ugly and vicious. While sitting in his parked car with two white teammates two weeks ago, one reached into the back seat for a mask he said Klansmen wear under their hoods. "I think they [the blacks] all should be lynched and burned at the cross," he said.

Mickey Wilson, who was once close to Carlos, avoids him. "If we talked, we'd have to talk about it, and I don't want to," says Mickey, who played well this season. But Mickey has remained friends with Lawrence Mitchell, the Tigers' best player, a black whose participation in the boycott was deemed pivotal. "The coaches kept talking to him because they knew that if they got Lawrence, everybody else would follow, one by one," says Carlos.

A 6'6", 225-pound linebacker, Lawrence can run a half mile in 2:05. In basketball, he averaged 26 points and 16 rebounds as a junior. During the '88 football season, while opposing offenses tried to avoid him, he made a team-high 116 tackles. According to Super Prep magazine he is one of the two best schoolboy linebackers in the country. With a college scholarship in the offing, Lawrence was torn in two by the boycott. "Everybody was coming to my house, telling me do this, do that," he says. "The white community was saying, 'If you don't play, you won't go to school.' The black community was saying. "You don't have to play, you've already proved yours.' "

He expresses his views carefully. On Jordan: "He helped out not only me, but a lot of people at school. People who need things, he helped." On Carlos and Mickey: "Mickey doesn't have a bad attitude, but Carlos is always fussing and complaining. The way we play, I don't think quarterback is all that important."

On Sept. 6, Lawrence stood to address his striking teammates and a handful of others at the Cherry Hill Baptist Church. He had wanted to speak up before but was apprehensive. He had boycotted the first two games, but a hunger to compete was gnawing at him. His grades were suffering. Sometimes, he would plead with his grandmother, Gussie Lee Pertell, to let him play again. She refused. "I'd say to Lawrence, my daddy told me, 'If you start a fire and don't put anything in it, it'll soon go out,' " she says. "Better to stick with it."

But now Lawrence was poised to defy not only his grandmother but the group assembled before him as well. "I think it went too far," he says now. "They should have let everybody play until it got straightened out." That was what Lawrence wanted to say in the church. He had decided to rejoin the team.

As he rose to speak, parents were asked to leave, so that the players could speak more freely. "I said, 'No point is going to be proven by this, nothing is going to happen, and I want to go back,' " recalls Lawrence. His words were simple and brief, but the players were mindful, too, of his actions the Friday before, when he and 10 other striking blacks had traveled with the team to Charleston. They stood on the sideline in their jerseys for the game against Middleton High. After Conway's 19-0 loss, Mickey, who was pounded throughout the night by a fierce rush, suffered back spasms as he walked to the locker room. Suddenly, he fell face down in agony on the turf. A cry went out for a stretcher. But before it arrived, Lawrence stepped forward, gathered Mickey in his arms and carried him behind the stands, where he received treatment.

When Lawrence left the church after speaking to his teammates, he was besieged by those gathered outside. "All these ladies were saying, 'Ahh, please don't go back.' " he says. "It was crazy, people talking to me for about three hours telling me. 'Don't go back.' "

He didn't. Over the weekend, his grandmother decided he would not return to practice on Monday. "She said too much stuff was happening," says Lawrence.

Not long ago, Lawrence seemed bound for Clemson. Now he's not so sure he wants to stay so close to home. "I want to get away from all this mess," he says. "I'm wanting out of here."

Integrated since 1969, 1,900-student Conway High was recently cited by the U.S. Department of Education as being among the top 108 high schools in the country. The school sits on the west side of Highway 501, its marquee promoting JR MISS CONWAY on one side and SPIRIT WEEK on the other. However, the boycott has sapped most of the spirit from the faculty. A handful of teachers have worn black-and-white outfits to show their solidarity with the protesters. "Our administration has to have more sensitivity to the total community, from the superintendent on down," says one black teacher. "The initial problem should have never gone past the principal's office."

Says Lynne Marlowe, a white teacher, "Students wonder are they still friends?"

At the north end of the school, on the the desk in Jordan's office, sits a file folder bulging with correspondence. Many of the notes are expressions of support from blacks who used to play for him, some of whom he helped get jobs or scholarships. But other letters accuse him of bigotry. Though weary of the dispute, Jordan remains buoyant and feisty. When he is riled, his drawl climbs an octave and his sentences often end with a withering reference to someone's "daggone butt."

Jordan played defensive back at Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., and was an assistant coach at the school for two years before returning to Conway, where he was raised in the integrated Sugar Hill section on the south side of town. On the dirt road—now Woodward Drive—outside the home in which he was raised, whites and blacks took each other on in football and with their fists. "I've always had a reputation as a coach of getting along with and getting the most out of the blacks," he says.

Jordan has received death threats since the boycott began. His wife, Pat, also a Conway native, and an elementary school teacher, was given a .22-caliber pistol by her father. She keeps it under the bed. Says Jordan, "Have you ever seen fear in people's eyes, people you love, a fear of what could happen, of not knowing how to take people?"

The first assistant coach Jordan hired when he returned to Conway was Nate Thompson, one of three blacks on his nine-man football staff. All have stood by their boss. Says Thompson, "This whole thing is at the expense of someone who's never done anything wrong."

When Jordan talked to his assistants about Carlos last April, he mentioned that the switch might provoke a response from Singleton but, says Jordan, "not that he'd call me a racist or engineer a boycott." Jordan responds to the charge of racism by saying that he shifted Carlos to quarterback in the first place, that he had the right to suspend him for not repaying the loan, that Carlos could have tried to reclaim the quarterback job if Mickey had faltered or been injured and that Carlos once told him he would have aborted the boycott had his mother let him.

Jordan admits that he might have communicated his reasons for making the move more clearly and sensitively, but that he felt backed into a corner. "Personnel decisions can't be made by parents, pressure groups or administrators," he says, "or I'm not the coach." He says he might have helped his cause by telling the press about Carlos's disobeying play calls, but he didn't want to assault a teenager's character. Only in testimony before the school board did he level the charges of moodiness and selfishness. Above all, Jordan feels he could have settled the dispute with his players had their parents not intervened. "[The kids] didn't have a choice," he says. "I'm convinced of that."

On the night of Nov. 10, while hundreds of protesters met four miles up Highway 501 at Cherry Hill Baptist Church, Conway beat Georgetown 7-6 at the Graveyard, the Tigers' final home game. Fans, most of them white, streamed onto the field, and the players hoisted Jordan onto their shoulders. When he descended, he strode toward a goalpost, his arm around Cleveland Sanders, a black running back who had not joined the boycott. A white man from Columbia who had read about the boycott passed out bumper stickers that said CHUCK JORDAN COACH OF THE YEAR. "This win means as much to our kids and our community as any game we've ever played." said Jordan.

For a moment, it seemed like old times at Conway High, but times there will not soon be the same.

THREE PHOTOSGEORGE TIEDEMANNMany blacks backed Carlos and his mother (below) by protesting Jordan's move, but not all black players abandoned Jordan (in hat).PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNThough less proven, Mickey was named quarterback...PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN...after Jordan (left) conferred with Thompson, his top aide.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNLawrence, a reluctant boycotter, excels at both basketball and football.PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNSingleton denies that he pressured players during meetings at his church.