Over time the bouncing ball and my own footfalls had worn away
the grass, so that the ground around the goal was spare and hard
This is ultimately a story of how useful a basketball court can
be. It does not, however, begin on a court, but over one, in the
rafters of Humphrey Coliseum on the campus of Mississippi State
in Starkville. From his regular seat in the Hump, Bailey Howell
will sometimes lift his eyes from the floor, up to where banners
testify to how his alma mater once interrupted Kentucky's
basketball dominance in the Southeastern Conference. The Maroons,
as Mississippi State fans then called their team, won four SEC
titles in five years, beginning with the 1958-59 group that
Howell himself led as a senior. ¬∂ But there's a fifth banner that
hangs near those four. It reads NCAA TOURNAMENT 1963 and seems
odd in the company of sec champions 1963. Taken together the two
seem to signify a distinction without a difference, for an SEC
title has always guaranteed a spot in the NCAAs. But then no NCAA
tournament banner hangs for the '62 SEC champions, or the '61
champs, either, or for the '59 Maroons. There's an explanation
for their absence, a story that's painful for Howell to recall.
He had to repeat it often in 1996, when Mississippi State
suddenly found itself in the Final Four, and young people,
especially, would approach the school's lone basketball Hall of
Famer to ask: How'd you do in the NCAAs, Mr. Howell?
"We didn't go," he'd say, and when they asked why not, he'd tell
them the tale.
March 10, 2003
In December 1956, during Howell's sophomore season, the Maroons
had beaten Denver in the opening round of a holiday tournament in
Evansville, Ind. When word got back to Starkville that the
Pioneers had fielded two black players and that the University of
Evansville, which the Maroons were set to play for the title,
would suit one up, school president Ben Hilbun and athletic
director C.R. (Dudy) Noble summoned their all-white team home.
Only a year before, the football team from Jones County (Miss.)
Junior College had defied popular opposition to play integrated
Compton (Calif.) Junior College in the Junior Rose Bowl in
Pasadena. But Mississippi's junior colleges answered to the state
Department of Education, not the rearguard Board of Trustees for
State Institutions of Higher Learning, which was packed with
appointees of a long line of segregationist governors.
Several days after Howell and his teammates returned from
Evansville, a rancher who lived outside Natchez, Miss., wrote
Hilbun to congratulate him for striking a blow against
integration, or as he called it, "deterioration and degeneration
that has been furthered by cheap politicians, communists and
other selfish groups."
"I believe in what the people of the state stand for," the
president wrote back. "I will not, in my official actions,
deviate from long-established policies and cherished traditions."
Two seasons later, in March 1959, the players hoped the school
might ignore the policy that Mississippians widely accepted as
unwritten law and let the Maroons build on their SEC title.
Instead, second-place Kentucky represented the conference in the
NCAAs. "It was a bitter disappointment," Howell says today. "But
back then you didn't make waves. You accepted authority and went
about your business." With members of the state's white power
structure pledged to defend racial segregation against all
comers, no trifling tournament was going to prod the team onto a
court with Negroes.
"If they said, 'You're not going,' we said, 'Yessir' and went
home," says W.D. (Red) Stroud, a guard who arrived in Starkville
in the fall of 1959. "If they said, 'You're going,' we said,
'Yessir,' and went. It was like growing up with Daddy. Daddy's
got everything under control. In '61 and '62 [when the Maroons
were again conference champs], we didn't give not going a second
thought. When the SEC season ended, we turned in our shirts."
So matters stood in February 1963, late in Stroud's senior
season. Five months earlier, two people had been shot and killed
amid a cloud of tear gas and gunsmoke in Oxford when federal
marshals, who were sent there to enforce the right of a black
man, James Meredith, to enroll at the University of Mississippi,
clashed with segregationist demonstrators. More than 30
Mississippi State students had taken part in the segregationist
riot at Ole Miss, and 15 were arrested. But now thousands of
students, and pockets of influential alumni, began to urge Dean
W. Colvard, who in 1960 had replaced Hilbun as president, to send
the team to the NCAAs if the Maroons went on to win their third
straight SEC title, which they seemed poised to do.
On March 2, moments before the Maroons took the court against Ole
Miss to win the SEC crown outright, Colvard released a statement:
The school would send its team "unless hindered by competent
authority." The announcement touched off a dozen days of
controversy, suspense and intrigue, concluded by the team's
literally sneaking out of Starkville for the NCAA Mideast
Regional in East Lansing, Mich. There the Maroons would face
Loyola of Chicago, the eventual national champion, which had four
The players desperately wanted to play on, for the glory of their
school and to see how good they were. But the Maroons, mostly
boys from Mississippi backwaters, remained almost as acquiescent
as Howell had been four years earlier. Their gregarious,
Mississippi-born coach, a diminutive former fuel oil dealer named
James Harrison (Babe) McCarthy, wasn't as retiring. He had put
his sales skills to work, lobbying over the radio and at pep
rallies, making clear that he'd be "heartsick" if the team yet
again couldn't go to the NCAAs, perhaps even planting a pointed
column by a sportswriter in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that he'd
likely quit unless the unwritten law was overturned. With a nod
at Meredith and Ole Miss, he said, "Preventing us from going is
like closing the stable door after the horse is out."
But the central protagonists in this tale would be Colvard, a
political and temperamental moderate from North Carolina, and
ordinary white Mississippians. Their feelings sit bare and raw in
a corpus of documents: the statements, diaries and memoir of
Colvard, who alone made the decision to defy the extreme
segregationists; bombastic court filings, redneck samizdat,
fevered stump speeches and contrarian sermons; clippings from the
news and editorial pages of the state's mostly anti-integration
newspapers; and hundreds of letters and telegrams, pro and con,
that reached the president's office--all of them preserved in the
university's archives. The written record depicts a white
populace at a crossroads. Would it join the rest of the union at
this moment of athletic self-interest, or continue to go it
So much of this story is there for the reading because
Mississippians have long been such prolific writers. Someone once
asked one of them, Eudora Welty, why a state with such a high
illiteracy rate has produced so many people devoted to the
written word. Her reply echoes a sentiment that Bailey Howell has
come to know well over some 44 years. "Because," she said, "we
have a lot of explaining to do."
When athletic director Dudy Noble hired Babe McCarthy in 1955,
McCarthy's last coaching job had been at a junior high school.
Noble told him to "find the best assistant you can."
"Better not," McCarthy replied. "He might know more basketball
than I do."
What McCarthy did know, at least, was how to talk. He talked
mamas and papas into sending their boys to Starkville; those
boys, in turn, into executing his simple but strict approach to
the game; and everyone else into following the Cow College cage
team. "There was something about his voice," says Stroud, who was
first-team All-SEC in '63. "It was big and deep and had volume,
but it was smooth."
"He could have sold a refrigerator to an Eskimo," says Doug
Hutton, Stroud's backcourtmate. "When they introduced us before
home games, he always got a bigger cheer than the players."
State's students so adored McCarthy that they took up a
collection to buy him a Cadillac. The faithful would begin lining
up at 3 p.m. for a 7 o'clock home game. "Get a little friendlier
with your neighbor!" the coach would call over the P.A., urging
the students to squeeze over just enough to let a few more fans
into New Gym, the fire marshal be damned. Fans would whack
cowbells with plow points, sending up a din so obnoxious that
Kentucky successfully lobbied for a rule to outlaw noisemakers
throughout the league.
In the SEC of the 1950s and early '60s, few schools took
basketball seriously enough to challenge Adolph Rupp's barony in
the bluegrass. But McCarthy did, teaching patient
counterpunching, the perfect approach to get Rupp's fast-break
goat. A typical State victory--and they began to come regularly
in his second season, when the Maroons tied the school record for
wins with 17--opened with the team grabbing a quick lead.
McCarthy would then remind his players, "When we've got the ball,
they can't score." The Maroons would spread the floor, getting
layups with a forerunner of the North Carolina Four Corners
offense. "He was like a snooker player," says Leland Mitchell, an
All-SEC forward on the '63 team. "It wasn't just how good you
shot, but how bad you left things for the guy you were playing
against." By '61 McCarthy had assembled the perfect group to
execute his waiting game, a half-dozen players, big and small,
all of whom could handle the ball and shoot.
McCarthy brought Mississippi State to the threshold of
basketball's national stage, but Colvard would carry the school
over it. Raised on a farm in Ashe County, N.C., near the Virginia
line, he had spent his childhood grubbing stumps with black
laborers, then gone on to Kentucky's Berea College, whose motto
is, God hath made of one blood all nations of men. In 1960, when
he drove across the Mississippi line with his family to take the
job in Starkville, an IMPEACH EARL WARREN billboard greeted them,
a reminder of the state's defiance of Brown v. Board of Education
of Topeka, the '54 Supreme Court decision that outlawed
segregated public schools.
It wasn't long before Colvard felt that people were trying to
sound him out about his views on race. In April 1962 a state
legislator phoned him to object that the relatively moderate
governor of Tennessee, Buford Ellington, had been invited to
speak on campus. When Colvard refused to withdraw the invitation,
the legislator demanded to know: "Are you a nigger lover or a
nigger hater?" Colvard hung up on him. At the same time, the
president did nothing as the athletic department kept the '61 and
'62 SEC title teams at home. He wished he could have intervened
to send them, but he was still establishing his political base
and felt relieved that the issue was never brought before him.
By 1963, however, Colvard was ready to bring himself to the
issue. He had watched the events at Ole Miss the previous fall.
He knew that desegregation would eventually reach his campus, and
he suspected that athletics could be a stalking-horse for change.
He briefly considered yielding his office to a Mississippian, but
his pastor, the Reverend Robert Walkup, had preached a
sermon--"All this talk about the state of Mississippi being
sovereign is foolishness!... There is only one type of
sovereignty that is absolute sovereignty, and that belongs to
God"--and those words emboldened him. He also knew he could count
on support close to home. More than half of the school's 5,200
students had signed a petition in favor of the team's going to
the NCAAs, and after the Maroons' defeat of Tulane on Feb. 25,
several hundred marched on the president's home, chanting, "We
want to go, ha!"
Colvard emerged on his front stoop to tell the students he would
give the matter careful consideration. He didn't tell them he had
already made up his mind. The next day he shared his decision
with McCarthy. "I admire your heart," the coach replied.
The president knew the risk he was taking. "Whatever shortcomings
[this decision] reveals are failures in capacity or judgment
[and] may not be rightly ascribed to failure in desire to do the
right thing," his statement read. "As one who has lived in the
midst of Mississippians for less than three years, I am cognizant
of the hazard of this action and am fully reconciled to the
possible consequences of it upon my professional career."
Judging by the letters and telegrams Colvard received, at least
two of every three Mississippians supported him. A poll conducted
by a Jackson TV station found the number in favor of the team's
trip even higher, at 85%. Alumni fell in line, while banks in
Starkville promised to make up any shortfall if legislators tried
to keep the university from spending state funds to send the team.
Many of those in favor of the Maroons' participation still
believed in segregation, but wanted to support the players. "The
school and the game belong to the citizens of tomorrow," wrote a
man from Kosciusko. "I am strong for separation of the races
socially, but let's face this realistically." A woman from Canton
said she and her husband "followed the games and [are] proud of
the boys.... I'm a segregationist but recognize that our lives
have been enriched by the negro." And a letter writer from
Jackson said, "Alabama has played in at least two bowl games
against teams with Negro players.... yet no public school in
Alabama at any level is integrated, and the same cannot be said
Meanwhile the players, taking cues from their fellow students,
began to speak up. "Our going to the NCAA ... would make the
whole state of Mississippi look less prejudiced," said forward
Joe Dan Gold, the captain, who was from Kentucky. Added Mitchell,
"I don't see anything morally wrong with playing against Negroes,
Indians, Russians or any other race or nationality."
The opposition took a few days to mobilize, but when it did, it
came down furiously. "We are being sold out by our own people,"
fumed Walter Hester, a state legislator. State senator Billy
Mitts, a former Mississippi State cheerleader and student body
president, called the decision "a low blow to the people of
Mississippi." A man in Tupelo wrote the Jackson Daily News: "The
world today remembers ancient Troy only because its inhabitants
were among the world's greatest 'suckers.' They liked 'trophies'
and they got 'one' of the biggest trophies in all history--a
hollow wooden horse."
And there were hostile letters and telegrams sent directly to
Colvard. A woman from Ashland wrote, "For a coach to insult those
white boys by asking them to play against negros [sic] is most
disgusting." A doctor in Jackson: "A game is not worth rioting
and possible bloodshed." A telegram from Kosciusko: "Shall the
temporary false glory of a basketball team be our thirty pieces
of silver for our honorable heritage and race integrity?" Someone
in Yazoo City sent a brochure for course materials for African
languages, urging Colvard to order a supply.
Most editorial comment cut the same way. "Dear as the athletic
prestige of our schools may be," opined the Meridian Star, "our
southern way of life is infinitely more precious." An editor of
the Jackson Daily News wrote that "a crack at a mythical national
championship isn't worth subjecting young Mississippians to the
switch-blade knife society that integration inevitably spawns."
And an editorial in The Clarion-Ledger saw the future more
accurately than anyone could have known: "We play integrated
teams abroad--next we play integrated teams at home--next we
recruit Negro stars to strengthen our teams--and the fast cycle
of integration is completed."
In a restaurant in Leland, Miss., as supporters of NCAA
participation circulated a petition that already carried more
than 200 names, a man grabbed it and set it alight. Without
saying a word, he threw it on the floor and stormed out the door.
One phrase in Colvard's statement--"unless hindered by competent
authority"--sounded like a dare, and on March 5 the president
learned that someone had taken him up on it. The state college
board announced it would meet in special session four days later
to review Colvard's decision. By now the president was taking
pills to help him sleep, and the school had posted extra security
in his neighborhood. Few knew that, if the board reversed him,
Colvard intended to resign. Sometimes the burden seemed heavy
enough that he hoped it would, so he could quit.
The move to convene the board came from a trustee from
Hattiesburg, M.M. Roberts, a tenacious lawyer and proud racist
who liked to play golf alone, often at a trot. He called the
issue at hand "the greatest challenge to our way of life since
Reconstruction." Several days earlier he had reached Colvard's
wife, Martha, on the phone and told her that her husband had
"ruined the state."
The board met on a Saturday, in a government office building in
Jackson, the state capital. Outside, four young men held signs
reading DON'T CONFUSE THE NCAA WITH THE NAACP and DON'T
DISCRIMINATE AGAINST WHITES, LET STATE PLAY. Five women showed up
with petitions in opposition. Within an hour the board had voted
8-3 to support Colvard's decision, then added a 9-2 vote of
confidence in his leadership. Roberts introduced a motion to ask
that the president resign, but it died for lack of a second.
In fact, back in February, Colvard had sounded out the board and
concluded that eight of its 12 members opposed going on record in
favor of having the team play in the NCAAs. Then he broached the
issue differently: Would the board be willing to support his
right to make the decision? A narrow majority indicated that it
would. Now he discovered that all those members had been true to
their word, plus a few more for good measure. Governor Ross
Barnett had already announced his opposition to the team's
participation, declaring it "not in the best interests of
Mississippi State University, the state of Mississippi, or either
of the races." But Colvard had also correctly guessed that, for
all his bluster, the governor wasn't likely to intercede. Ole
Miss had nearly lost its accreditation because of his meddling in
the Meredith crisis, and even a demagogue like Barnett had his
"It looks like we are about to lose our Southern way of life,"
Roberts told the press upon emerging from the meeting. One of the
petitioners, a Mrs. E.A. Elam of Jackson, wagged a finger in the
face of board chairman and Colvard supporter T.J. Tubb and said,
"You've got blood on your hands!"
Verner Holmes, a doctor from McComb, had been the board member
most forceful in his support of the president. Shortly after the
vote, a cross was burned on the lawn of his weekend home on the
Bogue Chitto River.
Late on the following Wednesday afternoon, the eve of the team's
scheduled departure for East Lansing, Colvard was returning to
his office from the gym, where he had just met with the players
to wish them well. An aide stopped him on the quad to share the
news: Two residents of Enterprise--Mitts, the state senator and
former Mississippi State cheerleader, and a judge named B.W.
Lawson--had gotten a sympathetic chancery court judge to issue an
injunction to keep the school from violating "the public policies
of the State of Mississippi." Not knowing exactly who had been
named in the writ or when the process servers might arrive from
Jackson, Colvard ordered five school officials to meet him at the
home of a booster, surgeon Dempsey Strange, on the edge of town.
For several hours no one could locate McCarthy, so Colvard
dispatched Strange, who found the coach sitting in his car
outside a hamburger stand, munching away. Strange dragged
McCarthy into his own car, ordered him to crouch down on the
floorboards, and drove him to yet another spot where the group
had reconvened, a dairy farm up the road from Strange's house.
Back in the athletic dorm, several players learned of the
injunction from a news bulletin on the radio. Mitchell dared his
teammates to pile into his car and head for Michigan, right then
and there. "Mitch wanted to play pro ball and wanted the
exposure," says Hutton. "He said, 'We need to head out tonight.
Who-all else has a car?'" By now much of the student body,
already gathered for a pep rally, had heard the news too. A group
of them hung Mitts and Lawson in effigy.
Colvard decided that the principals in the drama should get out
of town. The president himself was booked to deliver a speech at
Auburn that weekend, so he left early, chauffeured across the
state line by another administrator. McCarthy, athletic director
Wade Walker and assistant AD Ralph (Rabbit) Brown, guessing that
they too had been named, took backroads to the Memphis airport
and flew to Nashville that night. Someone broached the idea of
evacuating the team too. But Colvard calculated that the
segregationists wouldn't risk the bad public relations of serving
the injunction directly to the players.
Couriers from Jackson arrived with the papers around 11 p.m.,
whereupon an Oktibbeha County deputy sheriff, Dot Johnson, began
making the rounds. He could find no one who would come to the
door, and he had no search warrant to enter anyone's home.
Early the next morning trainer Dutch Luchsinger drove the team's
scrubs to Bryan Field, an airfield in Starkville. By
prearrangement, he was to phone assistant coach Jerry Simmons if
the party was served the injunction--whereupon Simmons was ready
to chaperone the regulars onto a private plane in nearby Columbus
and head for Nashville, where they would catch a commercial
flight to Michigan. Luchsinger and the scrubs encountered no
interference at Bryan Field. (It has long been suspected that the
deputy sheriff was a basketball fan, for though the injunction
had been issued against the board, Colvard, McCarthy "and their
agents, servants and employees," Johnson didn't intervene.)
Luchsinger phoned the all clear to Simmons, who drove the rest of
the team to Bryan Field. "You had that knot in your stomach, that
air of not knowing what to expect," says Hutton. "We just got out
of the cars and zoomed."
By 9:45 a.m. the chartered Southern Airways Martin 404 Aristocrat
was bound for Nashville, where it would fetch McCarthy, Walker
and Brown before continuing on to East Lansing. The passengers
let out a yell when the plane went wheels up. One said, "Now I
know how those East Berliners feel when they make it past the
The grand strategy that sprang the team was Colvard's. But the
tactics of the trip could have been drawn up on McCarthy's
clipboard. The segregationists had been snookered.
A knot of newsmen and anxious tournament officials awaited the
Maroons at the Lansing airport. They had heard crazy, conflicting
reports--one that a lone car carrying the team's starters had
escaped the state; another that the team plane had been
intercepted in midair and ordered back home. East Lansing would
hail the Maroons as heroes. A local band would play the
Mississippi State fight song in Jenison Field House. Best of all,
word would soon reach the team that a state supreme court justice
had thrown out the injunction.
"There are all kinds of people looking for you out there," a
member of the flight crew told McCarthy as the team prepared to
leave the plane.
"There were all kinds of people looking for us back where we came
from, too," he replied.
The race issue had hung over Loyola's season every bit as much as
it had Mississippi State's. The Ramblers could hardly avoid it,
not during an era when most coaches outside the South didn't dare
play more than two blacks at home and one on the road. Loyola
brazenly started four--Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter, Ron Miller and
Vic Rouse. In a game at Houston, fans chanted, "Our team is
red-hot, your team is all black," and as the Ramblers left the
floor at halftime, spectators spat and threw coins. The year
before, in New Orleans to face Loyola of the South, several
Ramblers had laughed nervously when they split up at the airport,
the blacks taking Jim Crow cabs to private homes in the black
part of town, the rest settling into an all-white hotel.
The Loyola coach, George Ireland, set himself up as a lightning
rod, intercepting the hate mail and taking the menacing
late-night phone calls, the ones wishing his daughter would
present him with a black grandchild. At the same time he tried to
turn the prejudice into an advantage. He left his starters in
against Southern teams to run up the score. "I wanted those teams
to wake up and smell the coffee," Ireland said before his death
His players obliged. "We were beating a student body, a system,
the Klan," said Hunter, who with Rouse had graduated from
segregated Pearl High in Nashville in 1960. "We weren't just
playing a team, we were playing an ideology."
The meeting with Mississippi State might have been the mother of
all such grudge matches. But in the run-up to the game, the
Loyola players felt a welter of emotions. "We got letters from
the Klan," remembers Harkness, the Loyola captain. "Ireland tried
to keep us from seeing them, but the first few got through. At
the same time we were getting pressure from the black community:
'You can't lose this game!' And there we were, in the middle."
Meanwhile, as they awaited the arrival of the Maroons--the word
maroon, ironically, was an old Southern term for a runaway slave,
and the nickname gave way eventually to Bulldogs--the Ramblers
couldn't help but admire them. "After we heard what they'd done
to get there, all of us had our hats off to them," Harkness says.
Only just before tip-off, when he came out to shake hands with
Gold, did Harkness realize what he would be a party to: "That's
when I first felt that this was more than a basketball game. I
couldn't believe how many flashbulbs went off, when all I'd done
was shake his hand."
The Ramblers were 24-2, superbly conditioned and averaging
almost 94 points a game. With an at-large bid into the field of
25 teams, Loyola had had to play the Ohio Valley Conference
champion for the right to face Mississippi State in the round of
16 in the Mideast Regional. The Ramblers had beaten Tennessee
Tech 111-42, a score so emphatic that it made McCarthy's pregame
possum playing sound sincere. "I wish I'd stayed home," the coach
said. "Nobody can beat a team like that."
In fact he believed his boys could beat Loyola the same way
they'd won at Kentucky the season before: by seizing an early
lead, then running their delay offense. Meanwhile Ireland,
surveying the policemen who were securing Jenison Field House,
decided to suspend his usual habit of punishing Southern teams.
"Don't worry," he told McCarthy. "We won't even so much as
breathe on your boys."
But the Maroons used their delay game to take a 7-0 lead in the
first five minutes. "Then two of us had one-and-ones and missed,"
recalls Stroud. "It could have been 11-0."
At that point Ireland amended his instructions. "Go ahead," he
told his players. "Breathe on 'em." Soon, with tighter defense
and more patience on offense, the Ramblers pulled even at 12 and
by halftime led 26-19.
Hunter, the Ramblers' center, had wondered if he would be cursed
or spat at, and he took the floor hesitantly. The gentlemanliness
of the Maroons surprised him, and their intensity impressed him.
Mitchell helped Rouse up after the two hit the floor after a
loose ball. "There wasn't one incident," says Mitchell, "and not
because we weren't trying or were trying to be nice."
But Stroud wonders if both teams weren't affected by all the
warm-and-fuzzies. Certainly the two weeks of turmoil had affected
the Maroons' preparations. Amid the uncertainty, they hadn't
practiced as regularly or as single-mindedly, and their rustiness
showed. With the Maroons already trailing, Mitchell fouled out
with six minutes to play, and Loyola went on to win 61-51. "It
was no different," Mitchell said of playing against an integrated
team. "They just seemed harder to keep up with and they seemed to
The next day, without Gold, who had suffered a broken hand,
Mississippi State beat Bowling Green, which had future NBA stars
Nate Thurmond and Howard Komives, 65-60 in the Mideast Regional
Someone asked McCarthy what kind of reception he expected back in
Starkville. "I don't think they're going to shoot us down," he
Indeed, 700 people greeted the team's charter. "We saw the lines
of cars backed up from the airport," Hutton remembers. "Then
someone said, 'Do you reckon they're here to welcome us back, or
send us back?' But over all these years, I don't know that any of
us have heard any negative comments."
"You look back," says Stroud, "the way TV hypes every little
bitty thing now, and it was one of the biggest, most historical
things in the world. And it passed us by."
Eight years later Hutton would be a high school coach in
Florence, Miss., during the early days of statewide public school
desegregation. One day in practice he gave each of his players a
ball and asked them to line up for rebound-your-own-shot drills.
One black kid would shoot once or twice, then scurry off to
retrieve other kids' balls. "Thomas!" Hutton found himself
yelling. "You quit chasing those white kids' balls! Let 'em chase
their own balls!"
Harkness has his own benchmark moment. During its run to the 1996
Final Four, Mississippi State played in the Southeast subregional
in Indianapolis, and a few older, white Bulldogs fans wandered
into the sporting-goods store the old Loyola captain then owned
in a downtown mall. Harkness spotted the group, dressed in maroon
and of a certain age, and went over to introduce himself. "They
remembered everything about the game," he recalls. "We embraced.
They were almost in tears. They didn't want to leave my store.
"You know, back then we thought it was going to be another
situation like [when we played in] Houston or New Orleans. And
then those bulbs started flashing. But isn't that how life goes?
People go along with the norm until someone takes the lead. And
then people are ready."
The game did little immediately to unite white Mississippians. The
Rebel Underground, a brotherhood of segregationist students born
on the Ole Miss campus in the fall of 1962, distributed a
mimeographed flyer around campus: "Niggers 61-nigger lovers 51.
MSU, being the first Mississippi school to be defeated by a bunch
of niggers, has caused our forefathers to turn over in their
graves.... Stand up and be counted now or forever suffer the
But shortly after Loyola won its NCAA title a week later, Robert
Taylor, Mississippi State's student body president, wrote Ireland
a letter of congratulations. "All the students at Mississippi
State were rooting for you in the NCAA tournament and were
overjoyed when your team made the magnificent comeback to beat
Cincinnati," it read. "We were honored to have played you and
look forward to meeting you again."
To judge by those two extremes, opinion in the state seemed to be
sharply split. But the gubernatorial campaign in the fall of
1963, in which Mississippians chose a successor to Barnett,
turned out to be the last in which candidates used the n word on
the stump, and even the victor, segregationist Paul Johnson,
spoke healing words in his inaugural address: "If we must fight,
it will not be a rearguard defense of yesterday. It will be an
all-out assault for our share of tomorrow.... God bless every one
of you, all Mississippians, black and white."
Two years later, during summer term, Richard Holmes, the foster
son of a Starkville physician, integrated the Mississippi State
campus without incident. Holmes happened to enroll the same July
day that former Illinois governor and U.S. ambassador to the
U.N., Adlai Stevenson, was buried. The school president had
ordered that the flag be flown at half-mast. "When it was flown
at full-mast the next day," Colvard would write in his memoir,
Mixed Emotions, "it would symbolize not just another day but a
sense of liberation." A basketball game had helped make possible
the tranquility of that day. Even people who thought they
supported Mississippi's "closed society," it turned out, weren't
absolute segregationists when faced with one of the costs of
keeping the races separate.
"We always think of how segregation and all denied members of the
black race," says Bailey Howell. "But in this case, because of
segregation, we were denied an opportunity to see how good we
Harkness agrees. "We talk of black history, but sometimes the
people don't have to be black to bring about progress. Those guys
didn't have to be supportive of integration. I don't know if
they'd have wanted to go out to dinner with us, or us with them,
even if now we would. They just had to want to play the best."
Among those many hostile letters to the president, one tried to
scare him with a nightmare scenario. This step, it predicted,
would surely lead to all-black Alcorn A&M someday playing in
Mississippi State's gym. In 1979 Alcorn did just that, defeating
the Bulldogs in a first-round NIT game in Humphrey Coliseum.
D.W. Colvard took note of the development from North Carolina. He
had returned there in 1966 to become chancellor at the state
university in Charlotte, where he still lives, at age 91.
Babe McCarthy, on the other hand, didn't see that day. He had
died of stomach cancer several years earlier. He left Starkville
in 1965 after a couple of losing seasons, then spent six years
coaching in the ABA. Still it isn't hard to imagine him at the
Alcorn-Mississippi State game, with that voice of his, big and
deep and smooth, urging people to squeeze over just a little
bit--to get a little friendlier with their neighbor.
With the state's white power structure PLEDGED TO DEFEND
SEGREGATION, no trifling tournament was going to prod the team
onto a court with Negroes.
Colvard knew that desegregation would eventually reach his
campus, and he suspected that athletics could be A STALKING-HORSE
After Loyola beat Tennessee Tech 111-42 in its first game,
McCarthy said, "I WISH I'D STAYED HOME. Nobody can beat a team
The Loyola coach set himself up as a lightning rod for his team,
INTERCEPTING THE HATE MAIL and taking the menacing late-night
"We weren't just playing a team, WE WERE PLAYING AN IDEOLOGY,"
says Loyola's Hunter. "We were beating a student body, a
system, the Klan."