You are currently viewing Auburn’s James Owens and overshadowed history as state of Alabama’s first Black player

Auburn’s James Owens and overshadowed history as state of Alabama’s first Black player

By TOM SHANAHAN

The old adage “History is written by the victors” validates any thoughts to add an epilogue to the James Owens story.

Owens, who died in 2016, was Auburn’s first Black football player, signing in 1969 before the NCAA permitted freshmen eligibility and playing on the varsity, 1970-72. He arrived at Auburn a year prior to Alabama’s first black player, Wilbur Jackson (1971-73), but try explaining that to those in the state and beyond that believe Jackson — through no fault of his own — was the first through the door.

Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s hagiography broadens the Crimson Tide’s spotlight, especially with Jackson coupled as Robin to Bryant’s Batman in Alabama folklore. Once Alabama joined the Union, Bryant made the 1970s his decade with his fourth (1973), fifth (1978) and sixth (1979) national titles.

History is written by the victors.

Auburn Hall-of-Famer Terry Henley (1970-72) — who became Owens’ teammate, close friend and spoke at his funeral — said he has grudgingly learned to live with distorted facts shining on the Tigers’ Southeastern Conference neighbor.

“Bear Bryant carried a big stick and won a lot of games with a lot of great players,” Henley said. “You’ve got to hand it to him and respect what he did. But then again, you have another school across the state, and we had the first Heisman Trophy winner. We had the first African American football player. We were way ahead of them in a lot of categories.”

Auburn’s first Heisman Trophy winner was Pat Sullivan in 1971 and second was Bo Jackson in 1985; Alabama’s first was Mark Ingram Jr. in 2009.

Add to that list Auburn basketball.

The Tigers’ Henry Harris arrived on campus in the fall of 1968 as the school’s first Black layer and made his varsity debut in the 1969-70 season. Alabama’s Wendell Hudson made his debut a year later in Tuscaloosa.

Bryant’s apologists say a combination of segregationist Gov. George Wallace and Alabama’s bigoted fans prevented Bryant from recruiting African Americans, but Alabama’s high schools were gradually integrating in the late 1960s. Wallace was out of office by Jan. 17, 1967. By the 1968 football season, the Alabama High School Athletic Association had fully merged with the state’s former Black athletics association.

Schools that were predominantly white and predominantly Black played each other in regular season games and playoff brackets. Owens’ high school, Fairfield High near Birmingham, was one of the early schools to integrate. Auburn coach Jim Hilyer scouted a 1968 Fairfield game, returned to campus and suggested to legendary Auburn head coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan they offer Owens a scholarship.   

“I came back and said there is a young man at Fairfield High School that fits our needs,” says Hilyer in a 2015 documentary on Owens, “Quiet Courage,” produced by former Auburn player Thom Gossom.

Hilyer continued, “He’s a fine young man with a fine family – and he’s Black. Coach Jordan called me into his office and said there will be some kick back.”

But, Hilyer added, Jordan followed up his cautionary note saying he would back him “100 percent.”

The timeline, in contradictions to Bryant’s apologists, shows us it was simple for Auburn to beat Alabama and Bryant to recruiting the first Black football player among the two in-state Southeastern Conference rivals. George Wallace never intervened to prevent Owens’ recruitment. And Auburn’s fan base never called for Jordan to be fired.

In Henley’s 1968 senior season at Oxford High, the Yellow Jackets won a state title for their division with an 11-1 record. They played three recently integrated schools in the regular season, Anniston, Gadsden and Talladega, and in the state title game defeated Cobb Avenue High of Anniston, a Black school that was gradually integrated with white students.

One of Anniston High’s Black athletes Henley’s team faced in the regular season was a future NFL player, Ken Hutcherson. Bryant and all SEC schools missed on Hutcherson. He played at Livingston College, a former HBCU that competed as an NAIA member. It is now known as West Alabama while competing in NCAA Division II.

Stories simplifying college football integration leave out the struggle of the true pioneers and mitigate the price they paid traveling down the road. And they obfuscate Bryant’s poor integration track record over true pioneers.

“If you watch the story on James and the 1972 team (in Quiet Courage), it will bring a tear to your eye,” Henley said. “When Bruce Feldman was at ESPN a few years ago writing a story on Auburn, I pleaded with him and others at ESPN to do a 30-for-30 (documentary) on James.

“I don’t know why they won’t do it. It’s a great documentary.”

Auburn’s integration story also authentically separates from Alabama in another way: a reckoning among prominent figures. Former Auburn athletic director David Housel acknowledged in “Quiet Courage” his school should have done more to support Owens as the only Black player.

“In retrospect it was not the way to break the color barrier,” Housel said. “There should not have been one person on that island alone.”

Of the Civil Rights movement to end segregation, Housel added, “There were terrible things that happened, but the thing that was most terrible was when good men stood silent. And I think that was true at Auburn and throughout the South … Change should have come quicker, but good men remained silent. …”

Henley said it wasn’t until later in life, upon deeper conversations with his old friend, that he recognized that he should have done more to support Owens’ difficult transition.

“It was a learning curve for me, the players and the coaches,” Henley said. “I was raised in an all-white community.”

By contrast, HBO’s 2008 “Breaking the Huddle” and Showtime’s 2013 “Against the Tide” both celebrate Bryant while focused on the 1970 USC-Alabama game, a tale that has grown with fiction and myths into folklore. The films skip over Bryant’s track record of dragging his feet on the social issue of his times.

A consequence of such a misleading narrative has been courageous stories of early pioneers at other schools have been overshadowed. The oversimplified story line has embellished the 1970 game as a tipping point. By the time USC visited Legion Field in Birmingham, college football integration was fait accompli. Trailblazers had paid the price to open a path for Bryant to schedule a game played without racial incidents.

Although “Quiet Courage” received strong reviews, the HBO and Showtime documentaries gained larger audiences. They left a misleading image of Bryant waving his wand to end segregation on a single night in 1970.

History is written by the victors.                         

   ***

Auburn made amends in 2012 to Owens for his sacrifices to change the South. The Tigers honored him as the initial recipient of the “James Owens Courage Award” that has been presented annually to a current or former Auburn player.

James Owens (center) on Sept. 15, 2012 as first recipient of the annual James Owens Courage Award.

———————————————————————————————————————————-

During a halftime ceremony against Louisiana-Monroe on September 15, 2012, the public address announcer told the Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd of 87,000 that ‘The James Owens Courage Award’ will ensure we never forget his legacy at Auburn University.”

Another teammate, offensive lineman Mac Lorendo (1970-72), asked Owens if he felt the current Tigers on the field had an awareness of the courage it took to blaze a trail.

“No, no they don’t,” was Owens’ reply, Lorendo said.

Telling Owens’ story remains important for a younger generation that doesn’t understand segregation was recent history – not ancient. Owens’ heart gave out four years ago, but there are still many pioneers among us.

     ***

The first SEC school to integrate was Kentucky with Nate Northington and Greg Page arriving as freshmen in 1966. They were followed a year later by the second pair of Black recruits, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg.

In 2016, Kentucky unveiled a statue of the four pioneers.

Tennessee was the second SEC school to integrate with Lester McClain signed in 1967 as its first black player. McClain (1968-70) gained another place in history as the first Black SEC player to score a touchdown with his six TDs as a sophomore in 1968.

Next, Auburn was joined by Florida and Mississippi State with Black freshmen in 1969, so it’s misleading to say Bryant had to wait for George Wallace. Recruitment of Black athletes was gaining momentum in the South from coaches with less job security than Bryant, and the Bear knew it.

In the 1966 season, Tennessee targeted two high school senior running backs to make history as the Volunteers’ initial black players, Albert Davis of Alcoa, Tenn., and Tommy Love of Sylmar, N.C. When Love committed to Michigan State, the Volunteers added Lester McClain of Antioch, Tenn., as a target.

Although Davis went to Tennessee State, leaving McClain as the Volunteers’ lone pioneer, Davis had been on Tennessee’s radar long enough to encounter Bryant at Neyland Stadium. Davis had a Tennessee recruit field pass for the 1966 Alabama-Tennessee “Third Saturday of October” rivalry that the Crimson Tide won 11-10.

McClain said Davis told him, “After the game Bear put his arm on his back and said, ‘I wish I could recruit you.’ ”

It was Bryant’s version of telling every girl he saw that she was prettiest gal he’d ever seen. Davis wasn’t the first or last black athlete to hear that non-committal excuse. Davis was known to use that line on other Black players while fielding all-white teams.

    ***

Another school overlooked by Alabama myths was Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s 1960s Underground Railroad players. The Associated Press reported in 1962 the Spartans had “the largest delegation of Negro players in the history of major college football.”

Daugherty’s 1964 Spartans were the first fully integrated team to play in the South at the height of the Civil Rights movement. They played North Carolina on Sept. 21, 1964 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill at the back end of a home-and-home contract.

The trip, ignored on college football integration timelines, belies claims from Bryant apologists that Alabama couldn’t find an integrated team to play in Birmingham. Author Keith Dunnavant, a Bryant apologist, dubiously made that claim about Boston College in the HBO documentary. There is no evidence Bryant tried to schedule Boston College.

The narrative has USC coach John McKay, his old friend, agreeing to the game, but a hole in the story was Daugherty also was Bryant’s close friend.

       ***

Two more holes in the excuses for Bryant: 1) George Wallace was out of Alabama office by 1967, but Bryant still didn’t add a recruit in his 1967, 1968 or 1969 recruiting classes. 2) The alumni didn’t prevent Alabama basketball coach C.W. Newton from recruiting Wendell Hudson to arrive on campus as a freshman for the 1968-69 school year. He also wasn’t prevented by the Alabama athletic director, a powerful figure named Bear Bryant.

In 1969, Bryant used his old excuse on Southern Methodist’s Jerry LeVias at a college all-star game. LeVias was the Southwest Conference’s first black scholarship player and a two-time All-American receiver/return man. He was named to the South roster that Bryant coached in the All-America Bowl on Jan. 4, 1969 in Tampa, Fla.

With the South trailing 21-0 into the third quarter, Bryant opened up the offense. The South threw passes to LeVias and gave the ball to Mercury Morris, a black running back from West Texas State.

Their big plays rallied the South, although the comeback fell short, 21-15.

“When the game was over, Bear came over to me,” LeVias recalled. “He said, ‘When they let me, I’m going to get me some of you all.’ ”

The “when” word choice suggests in January 1969 signing a Black athlete wasn’t on Bryant’s mind for the class of 1970, either. And by July 1969, Bryant still seemed without intent to recruit a black athlete.

Until, that is, Alabama’s Afro-American student association sued him. Civil Rights attorney U.W. Clemon said during depositions Bryant had told him he couldn’t find black athletes qualified academically and athletically to play for the Crimson Tide. Clemon doesn’t say if he asked Bryant about Owens or any number of black athletes breaking down doors in the South or playing elsewhere in the nation.

What changed?

The lawsuit went away when Jackson, a senior in the fall of 1969, committed to Bryant’s 1970 recruiting class — one year after James Owens had joined Auburn’s 1969 recruiting class.

At Auburn, all it took to recruit a Black athlete was for Hilyer to ask his school’s head coach. At Alabama, the Alabama Afro-American student association had to sue Bryant to get him to join the 20th century.

Auburn and James Owen beat Bryant through the door, although revisionist history will tell you otherwise. Bryant mythology pushed aside James Owens and others.

-30-

I invited you to follow me on Twitter @shanny4055

Below are links to click on to purchase my books focused.

My books tell the true story of college football integration in the 1960s and address the myths and fiction that allowed a false narrative surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game to usurp the credit from the true pioneers. As I said when I spoke at the National Sports Media Association book festival, no two books provide an accurate portrayal more than RAYE OF LIGHT and THE RIGHT THING TO DO.

I’ll put my facts up against anybody, anytime, anywhere.

***

Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read the summary as a first-place story.

***

Click here to purchase The Right Thing To Do

THE RIGHT THING TO DO

The True Pioneers of College Football Integration in the 1960s

Foreword by Ruffin McNeill

***

Click here to purchase Raye of Light.

RAYE OF LIGHT

Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

Foreword by Tony Dungy

***

Click here to purchase my children’s book, Bubba’s Dad, Duffy and College Football’s Underground Railroad

The book for now is only a Kindle version on Amazon. Print and audio platforms available soon.

***

My next children’s book coming soon: How Duffy Put Hawaii on the Football Map

Leave a Reply