Even now he has vivid memories of games at Auburn, where the kindest chant was "Char-coal, char-coal," and of games at Mississippi, where Confederate flags were wielded with malice. Those were the most nightmarish trips for Vanderbilt's Perry Wallace, who in the winter of 1967-68 became the Southeastern Conference's first black varsity basketball player. He tried to block out the jeers, the taunts and the slurs, but sometimes it was impossible. Sometimes his palms would get so sweaty that a pass would slip through his hands, or he would get so jittery that he would have to go to the bench amid hoots of derision.
"Those were scary, scary situations," says Wallace, now an attorney in Washington, D.C., and a law professor at Baltimore University. "Every time we had a road trip, I approached it with the deepest sense of dread."
Today that all seems so long ago and so strange. Indeed, no league in the nation has benefited more from integration—check out all those postseason bowl and NCAA basketball invitations—than the SEC, which fought it the hardest. This season the conference's football teams are 57% black, its basketball teams 64%.
The SEC has been enriched by so many outstanding black athletes—names like Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley leap to mind—that it is difficult to remember that when Wallace made his debut for Vandy, the threat of violence was as real and near as the redneck hecklers sitting just behind the benches. David Sansing, a professor of history at Mississippi, remembers those times when he listens to the current debate on campus over the Alumni Association's request to Ole Miss fans not to wave Confederate flags at athletic events because doing so is an insult to blacks. "When you get down to it," says Sansing, "white Southerners and black Southerners still live in a world apart from each other, but it's better, and athletics has been a part of it. Take this flag thing. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, a white man could literally kill a black person in Mississippi without much fear of reprisal. Now we're talking about being insensitive to the feelings of blacks and scolding people for it. That's a hell of a difference."
August 11, 1991
The South was a racial battleground all through the 1960s, and its collegiate athletic teams, the most visible symbols of both the region's pride and its prejudice, were caught up in the emotions. Somehow, breaking the color barrier wasn't as difficult in the SEC's neighboring leagues, the Atlantic Coast and Southwest conferences, perhaps because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights leaders chose to fight in the heart of Dixie. The ACC was quietly integrated by Maryland, where the pioneers were football player Darryl Hill in 1963 and basketball player Billy Jones in '66. Nor was there much of a stir in the SWC when Texas Christian's James Cash became its first black basketball player in 1965 and Baylor's John Westbrook became the league's first black football player a year later.
But in Alabama and Mississippi, the core of the Old South, and in the SEC, integration in athletics was accomplished against a backdrop of burning crosses and hooded Klansmen, freedom marches and lunch-counter boycotts, National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets and policemen with snarling attack dogs. "Oh, yeah, I remember the freedom marches," Reggie King, a black basketball star at Alabama in the late 1970s, recalled. "One time the Reverend Martin Luther King's brother was staying in a house a block from me. It was bombed, and the explosion rattled the pictures off the walls of our house. I was scared that night."
Until the SEC was integrated, black athletes in the South had to either leave their home states or attend black schools like Grambling and Florida A&M. The anti-integration feeling was so strong in Mississippi that an edict by the state legislature prohibited its college athletic teams from competing against blacks. The tension wasn't as strong at Kentucky, the league's northernmost member. Nevertheless, after becoming university president in 1963, John Oswald at first had no luck in getting football coach Charlie Bradshaw and basketball coach Adolph Rupp to integrate their teams. The legendary Rupp, winner of four NCAA titles in the 1940s and '50s, was so opposed to the idea that he let such outstanding black prospects as Kentucky natives Wes Unseld, Clem Haskins and Butch Beard get away. But in the spring of '66 Bradshaw finally signed two black Kentuckians, Nat Northington of Louisville and Greg Page of Middlesboro. And in 1969 Rupp signed Tom Payne, a 7'2" center from Louisville.
In those days freshmen weren't eligible for varsity competition, so Page and Northington played only on the freshman team in the fall of '66. Sadly, Page died after suffering a spinal injury during practice before his sophomore year. Northington went on to become the SEC's first black varsity football player, in the fall of 1967. However, he quit the team near the end of the season and transferred to Western Kentucky. Although Northington says his pioneer status had nothing to do with his decision, it was widely assumed that the pressure, along with Page's death, had unnerved him.
The SEC wouldn't have a black letterman in football until 1968, when Lester McClain lettered as a sophomore wide receiver at Tennessee. By the time he had finished his career, in 1970, McClain was one of Tennessee's alltime leading receivers.
Now an insurance executive in Nashville, McClain says he remembers only minor, isolated incidents of ugliness during his playing days. But that's primarily because football players, with their helmets and padding and distance from the crowd, are more insulated than their basketball counterparts. Wallace, by contrast, had to play in such places as Florida's 8,500-seat "Alligator Alley," Alabama's 4,500-seat Foster Auditorium, Mississippi State's 5,000-seat Maroon Gym and Auburn's 2,600-seat Sports Arena.
It wasn't mere happenstance that Wallace broke the SEC color barrier in basketball. A 6'5" forward, he came from a middle-class family in Nashville, was valedictorian of his high school class of 450 and had the potential to be an impact player as a sophomore. Although he had more than 100 scholarship offers, Wallace chose Vanderbilt because of the chance to make history and because of his parents, who had worked their way up from poverty so that their children could have a better life. "They were getting older and getting ill," says Wallace, "and I knew they would take a lot of pride in seeing one of their children go across town to the big white-folks' school."
What's remarkable is that Wallace performed as well as he did under the circumstances. He survived, he says, by maintaining what he calls a "dual" existence. Confident and poised in public, he brooded and agonized when alone in his dorm room. "Only after I graduated and left Nashville did I realize how much was at stake emotionally and psychologically," Wallace says. "There was so much at risk that I could have gone one way or another, even counting as hard as I fought to come out healthy. When it's over, you have to open up feelings that you had to block out to survive. I could have been consumed by fear and pain, but I fought to overcome that."
Henry Harris, the second black varsity basketball player in the SEC, broke the color barrier at Auburn in the 1969-70 season. Wallace, who was a senior that year, recalls that the presence of Harris meant the Auburn crowd couldn't yell as many racial epithets at him as it had in previous years. "Auburn was a rough, rough place in those days for a black."
Ironically, considering that Governor George Wallace had made his defiant and symbolic "stand in the schoolhouse door" to prevent two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama in 1963 (the "schoolhouse," by the way, was Foster Auditorium, where students registered for classes), the Crimson Tide emerged as the leader of integration in the SEC. In 1968 Alabama hired basketball coach CM. Newton, a member of Rupp's 1951 NCAA championship team at Kentucky, who had been coaching at tiny Transylvania College in Lexington, Ky. At his first meeting with Bear Bryant, who was the Tide's athletic director as well as its football coach, Newton asked if there were any restrictions on recruiting. In other words, could he recruit black players? "All he told me," says Newton, "was that I could go ahead and recruit anybody who could qualify academically and was good enough to help us win." One factor, of course, was that the university's Afro-American Association had a lawsuit pending against the athletic department for not having any blacks on scholarship.
Newton became the first SEC coach to recruit large numbers of blacks. At the end of his first season, he signed Wendell Hudson, the Tide's first black varsity athlete. In Newton's seventh season, 1974-75, Alabama became the first SEC team to have five black starters (Rickey Brown, Charles Cleveland, Leon Douglas, T.R. Dunn and Anthony Murray), all of whom were from Alabama. Crimson Tide basketball flourished as never before. For the five-season period from 1973 through '77, Alabama, which had become a national power, went 114-28 and won the SEC championship three times.
"C.M. probably deserves as much credit as anyone for integrating SEC basketball," says current Tide coach Wimp Sanderson, who was Newton's top assistant during that era. "When C.M. started recruiting blacks, people said at first that Alabama never would start two. Then it was three. Then it was four and five. But when we began to have success with black kids who stayed home, the other schools started recruiting the blacks in their states too."
Although he had given Newton the green light to recruit blacks in basketball, Bryant tested the waters more gingerly in football. He had a black—Wilbur Jackson—on the freshman team in 1970, the same season that Southern Cal came to Birmingham and routed the Tide 42-21 behind two touchdowns by black tailback Sam (Bam) Cunningham. As Jerry Claiborne, then one of Bryant's assistants, later put it, Cunningham's performance had more to do with integrating the SEC than anything. The USC debacle showed Bryant that a team could no longer seriously compete for the national championship without black players. And when the Bear began recruiting more black stars the next season, the rest of the SEC coaches had no choice but to do the same thing.
While Alabama's football program thrived after integration, Mississippi's went downhill. Having averaged almost eight victories a year from 1951 through '71, the Rebels won as many as seven games only once between 1972 and '85. One reason was that the all-white private academies—they began to spring up around the state after federal intervention in 1962 enabled James Meredith to become Ole Miss's first black student—didn't provide the caliber of competition necessary to produce athletes good enough to play in the SEC. But what hurt Mississippi more was that many black athletes boycotted the school because of its refusal to get rid of the Rebels' nickname and its reluctance to discourage fans from waving Confederate flags at games.
"I think our school and our state have done more to correct the injustices of the past than any other state in the nation," says Ole Miss football coach Billy Brewer, who played for the Rebels in the late 1950s. "But we never got any credit for it until recently. Only when the Chucky Mullins tragedy happened did the national news media come in and see for themselves what Mississippi is really all about."
Mullins was the black defensive back who was paralyzed below the neck after making a tackle against Vanderbilt in 1989. His plight inspired such an outpouring of love and support from blacks and whites alike that it turned into a public relations triumph for the state. Mullins died last spring, but his legacy might be that black athletes will be more willing to give Ole Miss the benefit of the doubt.
The response to Mullins's injury was encouraging in many aspects, but it was an isolated incident. What happens to the black athlete in the Deep South after the games are over and the cheering has stopped? Says Bill Curry, the football coach at Kentucky and the former head coach at Georgia Tech and Alabama, "We're not going to let [black athletes] come in, stay four years and not get a diploma. I think the big question about [blacks in] the SEC or anyplace else is, 'Where are they now?' Some of my former [black] players at Tech and Alabama have jobs as executives at Procter & Gamble, Xerox, Du Pont, Boeing and IBM. I'm really proud of these guys. But we still have a long way to go, because there are 300 years of injustice to be corrected, and heaven knows there's still a lot of prejudice and bigotry out there."
As for Perry Wallace, who now views the SEC from a distance both geographic and historic, he can only smile and shake his head whenever he happens to catch an SEC basketball game on TV and sees nine or 10 blacks on the floor. "It's more than interesting," he says. "It's amazing—a different world. I have to stop and think, 'That's the SEC?' I'll always remember the last game I played, at Mississippi when I was a senior. You could still hear some things coming out of the stands, but by that time the overwhelming ugliness and massive intimidation was gone. I had a good game, and after it was over, as we were walking off the floor, I just smiled up at the people, including the ones who had yelled things at me. The smile said, 'You didn't get me, and now I'm gone.' I remember that feeling very, very well."