Eric Marshall’s Civil Rights journey from Mississippi to Michigan State to Vietnam and to San Francisco

Eric Marshall’s Civil Rights journey from Mississippi to Michigan State to Vietnam and to San Francisco

PHOTO: A mob of 3,000 White supremacists, students and outsiders, sparked the deadly Ole Miss Riot of 1962. The pivotal Civil Rights moment influenced Eric Marshall’s future.

HIS STORY IS A LIFE LESSON FOR TODAY’S COVID-19 IMPACTED ATHLETES. HE ADAPTED TO HISTORY’S TWISTS AND TURNS, LIVING THROUGH THE OLE MISS RIOT OF 1962, ESCAPING SEGRAGATION ABOARD MICHIGAN STATE COACH DUFFY DAUGHERTY’S UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, SERVING AS A YOUNG LIEUTENANT IN VIETNAM AND RETIRING FROM A SECOND CAREER AS A HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL IN SAN FRANCISCO

By TOM SHANAHAN

Trucks rumbled outside Eric Marshall’s home in the middle of a 1962 Oxford, Mississippi night, awakening the 17-year-old, his mother, grandparents and two younger siblings. The noise and reverberations shook windows and rattled nerves.

What was it? Anybody would jolt up, but Marshall’s hometown embodied the heart of the Jim Crow South – if not its geography. Degradations and the Ku Klux Klan were never too far from a Black neighborhood.

Or maybe the commotion was White supremacists gathered on the nearby University of Mississippi campus. A mob, 3,000 students and outsiders, attempted to block Air Force veteran James Meredith’s admission as the school’s first African-American student. U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had sent 500 federal agents to enforce the court orders.

That night Marshall had gone to bed buoyant. He was on the cusp of fulfilling his childhood dream, escaping segregation aboard Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad.

Marshall had booked passage as a two-time state championship starting quarterback from Oxford Training School, the city’s Black high school. Southern Black high school coaches laid the Underground Railroad tracks to college football’s first fully integrated rosters.

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Click here to hear Eric Marshall and myself on The Drive with Jack, Oct. 5, 2020

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“When I was in sixth grade, we had to give a speech about what we wanted to do in life,” Marshall said. “Mine was about how I was going to Michigan State University to play football and graduate. The other kids laughed at me. It was the impossible dream. No one we knew was able to go to a Big Ten school.”

Eric Marshall upon joining Michigan State’s football team in 1963.

Daugherty’s 1960s teams were a mix of Midwest-based Black-and-White athletes, a unique Hawaiian Pipeline he had cultivated since the 1950s and a newly tapped 1960s pool in the segregated South. Michigan State changed the face of the game with a contrast as clear as Black-and-White on television screens. Twice in 11 months the Spartans played before vast TV audiences.

The 1965 Big Ten and UPI national champions met UCLA in the Jan. 1, 1966 Rose Bowl. The 1966 season finished with the Game of the Century against Notre Dame played on Nov. 19, 1966 before a record 33-million TV audience.

The unbeaten No. 1-ranked Irish met the No. 2 Spartans in a quasi-national championship that ended in a controversial 10-10 tie. The Associated Press and United Press International polls stuck to their 1-2 votes to name their national champions, but the National Football Foundation crowned the Irish and Spartans as national co-champs for identical 9-0-1 records and a draw on the field.

The epic showdown represented a seminal moment. Notre Dame, with one Black player, represented the past, Michigan State, with 20 and 11 starters, the future.

In Oxford, Mississippi, the ground had shifted beneath Marshall’s feet as he witnessed a pivotal Civil Rights moment. In East Lansing, Michigan, he was in step with college football’s new landscape.

Duffy Daugherty on the cover of Time Magazine, Oct. 8, 1956

Marshall was never more than a backup quarterback, but all that mattered to him was fulfilling his Underground Railroad dream and earning his political science degree. He had the last laugh on his sixth-grade classmates as a high school senior.

“I read them my scholarship letter from Duffy.”

AMERICAN HISTORY FROM 651 N. SEVENTH ST.

But back to that 1962 Mississippi night.

Young Eric Marshall peaked out a window at 651 N. Seventh St. and felt relief. The hotspot was elsewhere. He stepped onto the front lawn with his mother, Susie Marshall, a venerable educator for the area’s Black schools. They saw Army transports rolling toward campus.

The Ole Miss Riot of 1962 had erupted, Sunday, Sept. 30 through Monday, Oct. 1.

Federal agents, having exhausted their tear gas supply, were under siege at the campus Lyceum Building. The mob threw Molotov Cocktails. Cars were set afire. A third of the 500 agents were wounded. Two people were killed, a French journalist, shot in the back, and a curious bystander, shot in the forehead. Dan Rather, then a young CBS reporter, described the campus as a “war zone.”

Army troops arrived all night and morning on the University of Mississippi campus.

Other Black families joined the Marshalls outside watching the troops, sent by President John F. Kennedy to quell the riot. The soldiers disembarked, block by block, sealing off intersections.

“I saw the efficiency of the military,” Marshall said. “They knew what they were doing and took over the city. I never forgot that.”

Those images served him well soon enough. Marshall’s 1968 Graduate school plans with his political science degree were disrupted. An Army draft notice landed with a thud in his 651 N. Seventh St. mailbox. American history found his street address again.

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Duffy Daugherty’s Underground Railroad teams were also about opportunities for the next generation. Dr. Erica Marshall Lee’s article in “Psychology Today” following the Trump terrorists attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Marshall arrived in Vietnam 50 years ago, serving 13 months from July 1970 to August 1971.

Maybe the local draft board thought he was just another a Black body to send to the front lines – they went in disproportionate numbers – but Marshall was a college graduate. That qualified him for Officer Candidates School.

“I was going to Vietnam anyway. I might as well go as an officer. I signed up for Ranger training, jump training, jungle training. It was a good thing, too. When you first get there, your men think you’re some lieutenant that doesn’t know what’s going on over there. My training gained their confidence.”

Only in America can history flip circumstances so soon and dramatically.

In 1962, Marshall was a bystander on racially blood-stained Mississippi soil; he watched the Army protect a descendant of slaves from Confederate progenies. Eight years later he was an Army officer on blood-stained foreign soil; he commanded a melting-pot platoon.

Marshall, 74, eventually retired from two careers. First as an Army Lt. Col., having served 24 years around the world, including a diplomatic trip to Moscow while stationed in West Berlin. Next as a high school principal in the San Francisco Unified School District.

All these years and events later, throughout twists and turns, he is proud of his life’s journey. Today’s COVID-19 impacted athletes can learn from him — that life can still turn out fulfilled.

CU CHI’S TREACHEROUS TUNNELS

Cu Chi was a Viet Cong stronghold perilous for its network of tunnels hiding men and supplies. First Lieutenant Marshall and his men had their heads on a swivel, watching for ambushes popping up.

“When you’re in the infantry, you’ve got to fight together to stay alive. You understand bullets don’t discriminate.

—- Eric Marshall

A platoon is 35 to 40 men. Marshall’s soldiers were Black and White, including southerners that grew up on segregation’s white side.

“When you’re in the infantry, you’ve got to fight together to stay alive,” Marshall said. “You understand bullets don’t discriminate. There is no time for prejudices. I felt responsible for my men’s lives, and they trusted me.”

Finding tunnels meant confronting claustrophobia, crawling into a hole in the Earth. Tunnels weren’t simple passageways; they were multi-levels. Marshall’s life was defined by tunneling to the other end; he rode the Underground Railroad to a North Star future. So, he didn’t leave the job to privates.

“The Army trains you to lead by example; the men watch you. Those tunnels were amazing with what they had down there.”

He completed his Vietnam tour awarded a Bronze star, but there was no decoration among those filling his uniform chest for the one that brought him the most pride.

“All my men made it home. We had some shot up and sent to the rear, but we didn’t lose one. That told me I had made the right decisions under fire.”

Two of Marshall’s famed Michigan State teammates went to Vietnam, but they traveled in comfort on USO/NFL tours. The Houston Oilers’ George Webster was among 15 players in 1970 and the Minnesota Vikings’ Clinton Jones with 17 in 1971.

Neither player, though, huddled up with Marshall. Cu Chi wasn’t a safe haven USO Tour stop. Marshall’s Michigan State’s teammates, who called him Ruben for his middle name, Rubenstein, raised their respect for a man they had already held in high esteem as a quintessential team player.

“Ruben is an American hero,” Jones said. “He was our hero at Michigan State. He never wasted any energy. He always did everything 100 percent.”

Stories of young Vietnam officers such as Marshall don’t sell movie scripts to expose America’s underbelly, “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon” or “Full Metal Jacket.”

Nor was he well enough known for an inspiring story such as wounded Vietnam veteran Rocky Bleier, with his book and 1980 TV movie, “Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story.” Bleier, who was opposite Marshall on the 1966 Game of the Century sidelines as a Notre Dame halfback, recovered from losing part of his right foot to win four Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl rings (1974, 1975, 1977, 1978).

Bleier has never met Marshall, but learning he served in Vietnam was all he needed to know.

“The soldiers serving today are truly heroes, but for those of us who served in Vietnam, that was not the case at the time,” Bleier said. “Unfortunately, Vietnam veterans didn’t get recognition for their commitment and their service.”

Bleier has spent the last half-century trying to understand what happened to his country, the soldiers that served, sharing his observations and helping others come to terms with America’s haunting Vietnam history.

“That whole experience — whether staying in, spending two years after being drafted or four years after enlisting — they had to repress their feelings about how the American public viewed them. They didn’t get the immediate recognition that could have been so helpful in a lot of ways. Helpful in their perception of themselves, helpful with Post Traumatic Stress, helpful how they approached the rest of their life thereafter.

“I look at Vietnam veterans and what they faced. In my mind they are heroes for the commitment they made.”

—- Rocky Bleier
Rocky Bleier was wounded in Vietnam between his careers at Notre Dame and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I think whether they had a great experience or a bad experience – whatever it was – they needed someone to say, ‘Thank you for your service and for putting your life on the line.’ I look at Vietnam veterans and what they faced. In my mind they are heroes for the commitment they made. Right or wrong, drafted or enlisted, they put in their time serving their country.”

Maybe the movie Marshall most resembles, oddly enough, was the fictional character played by Tom Hanks in “Forest Gump.” The difference, of course, was Gump fell into everything by dumb luck, Marshall planned and adapted to events. Life imitates art — or is it the other way around?

“Sometimes the unsung heroes have the greatest impact.”

— Herman Bulls, (Ret.) U.S. Army Colonel, Fortune 500 company vice-chairman

Both had devoted education-minded mothers; both witnessed a pivotal Civil Rights moment at a hate-filled Deep South campus; both played for a College Football Hall of Fame coach; both served in Vietnam; both went on a diplomatic mission to a Communist country; and both crossed paths with historic figures and moments. Only Gump was invited to the White House, but Marshall’s story still has a “Zelig” feel for showing up in so many places in time.”

But movies aren’t made about anonymous soldiers that did their job, harrowing or not.

“Sometimes the unsung heroes have the greatest impact,” said Herman Bulls, a West Point graduate and retired Colonel who has a second career as a vice-chairman of a Fortune 500 company, JJL in Washington, D.C.

Bulls related to hearing Marshall’s story for more than their shared Army officer careers.

Both were a Black high school quarterback from the South. As a senior in the fall of 1973, Bulls was the first Black starting QB at Coffee High in Florence, Alabama. West Point head coach Homer Smith recruited him. As a West Point Cadet, Bulls viewed with great respect the Vietnam veterans that returned to campus to teach. As a tribute to their dedication, he requested a tour on West Point’s faculty before his retirement to the business world.

“Lt. Col. Marshall’s peers from those Vietnam years were the same officers that introduced me to the military as my tactical officers and instructors at West Point,” he said. “They were a group that fought an unpopular war and, like Lt. Col. Marshall, made a big difference preparing the next generation for success.”

ROSEY MICHIGAN STATE

Marshall first dreamed of the Underground Railroad through summer visits to his father in Muskegon, a city on Lake Michigan’s shore.

Joe Marshall, like other southern African-Americans of the time period, had relocated seeking a factory job. Marshall’s parents were divorced, but both guided him. His father regaled him with stories of Black stars from Michigan factory towns, Flint and Saginaw, leading the Spartans to 1954 and 1956 Rose Bowl victories.

The genesis of the Underground Railroad was the Spartans’ 1950s reputation throughout the South among African-Americans. The southern Black high school coaches viewed Michigan State as a destination, especially after many met Daugherty at a national Atlantic clinic in the late 1950s. They had been denied entrance, so Daugherty put on a free clinic for them – a practice he continued.

By 1962, The Associated Press reported Michigan State’s 17 Black athletes formed “the largest delegation of Negro players in the history of major college football.”

— Associated Press report
Eric “Ruben” Marshall on the run as a 1967 senior.

The most prominent among the southern coaches was Willie Ray Smith of Charlton Pollard in Beaumont, Texas. He sent Duffy two sons, Bubba and Tody, among nine from the Houston area between 1963 and 1967. Three started in the 1966 Game of the Century, Bubba Smith, Gene Washington and Jess Phillips.

Daugherty tapped more southern talent than any other school – 44 Black southern recruits from 1959 through his final recruiting class, 1972. This was the difference between other Big Ten schools with one or two southern recruits over several years they discovered through coach’s friend of a friend.

Daugherty was also willing to take a chance on a Black athlete, another reason for Michigan State’s numbers. Most Underground Railroad passengers, like Marshall, weren’t stars, but most rewarded his trust with a graduation rate of 68 percent.

By 1962, The Associated Press reported Michigan State’s 17 Black athletes formed “the largest delegation of Negro players in the history of major college football.”

THIS was the tipping point in college football integration.

The 1966 Game of the Century viewed by 33 million people not only broke down barriers in the South, it pushed open doors wider elsewhere in the nation. Other schools, even those with a long history of integration, had limited their Black athletes to a half-dozen or so.

USC numbered only five Black players on its 1962 national championship team, seven on its 1967 title roster. Minnesota’s 1960 national title lineup was limited to five, Notre Dame one in 1966.

By USC’s next national title, in 1972, the Trojans had 23 Black players. Notre Dame’s next national crown, in 1977, included 13. Alabama, which joined the Union with its first desegregated roster in 1971, won its first integrated national title in 1973 with 14.

Among Michigan State’s 1965 and 1966 stars, four were College Football Hall of Famers: Webster from Anderson, S.C.; Jones from Cleveland, Ohio; Smith from Beaumont, Texas; and Washington from La Porte, Texas. Michigan State Hall-of-Famer Jimmy Raye was the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title out of Fayetteville, N.C.

“Alan Page once told me we had so many great players from so many different places, and we made it work.”

—- Clinton Jones
Jimmy Raye on the run against Notre Dame in the 1966 Game of the Century

College and Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Alan Page, Notre Dame’s lone Black player in 1966, discussed the transcendent Spartans in his NFL days as a Vikings teammate with Jones and Washington.

“Alan Page once told me we had so many great players from so many different places, and we made it work,” Jones said. “Ruben was one of them. He did a great job preparing us for games as the scout quarterback. He could have started at other Big Ten schools.”

As high school quarterback, Marshall had an arm and inquisitive mind. He took a Saturday morning cafeteria job on the Ole Miss campus, coveting the bonus in exchange for the menial work. African-American employees were permitted to attend Ole Miss games in a roped-off section at Hemingway Stadium (now Vaught-Hemingway).

“I’d bring a pencil and pad of paper and diagram the plays,” he said. “I was interested in how plays worked, especially the passing plays.”

The Rebels were a throwing team. Ole Miss quarterback Jake Gibbs was third in the nation in 1960 with 12 touchdown passes, although he became better known for a 10-year baseball career with the New York Yankees.

“I’d show those plays to my high school coach,” said Marshall, referring to Al Dowsing. “We’d work on them during the week.”

He also picked up that Gibbs called audibles; Dowsing trusted his QB to change plays. In Marshall’s senior year, a late-game audible preserved the school’s fifth straight unbeaten season with a Black state title for Northern Mississippi (Southern Mississippi Black schools had their own tournament).

With the defense overloaded, Marshall changed the play. Halfback Leroy Jenkins broke off a long run to set up the game-winning score.

WORTH THE WAIT

Marshall had three teammates play at a Historically Black College and University, and he gained his own scholarship offers from Jackson State and Tennessee State, HBCU powerhouses.

But even though Daugherty didn’t have a scholarship available until the winter quarter of January, 1963, his heart remained with riding the Underground Railroad. Marshall stayed home the fall of 1962 until boarding for the New Year.

He spent 1963 on the freshman team, but as a 5-foot-9, 165-pound passing quarterback, he was as tough fit into Michigan State’s ground-oriented offense. On the varsity, ankle injuries and a broken clavicle buried him on the depth chart. He missed one year on the redshirt injury list.

Raye emerged as the 1965 backup to All-American Steve Juday, including a key plays in the Rose Bowl. Raye was the starter in 1966 and 1967. He was one of only two Black starting quarterbacks in the nation in 1966, the same number of Black QBs Daugherty had on his roster.

Marshall also was behind Charlie Wedemeyer and Bill Feraco on the depth chart, in part because he played such a valuable role on the scout team. He took more snaps directing the upcoming opponent’s offense than the Michigan State game plan.

He expresses no regrets.

“That’s the way it was, and I just tried to do what I could to help the team. I enjoyed school and my classes. When other students learned I was from the South, they’d ask me what segregation was like. I told them you learned to live with it. I also told them there were separations in the North, too, but I could deal with it.”

Eric Marshall from Duffy’s Underground Railroad and two-time All-American Bob Apisa from Duffy’s Hawaiian Pipeline.

That quote was more than a 74-year-old man accepting the past.  He had said essentially the same thing as a fifth-year senior. After Daugherty gave Marshall snaps in the mid-season game at Notre Dame, he was featured in the State News, the student newspaper, in a Nov. 16, 1967 article under Don Kopriva’s byline. He quoted Marshall about his backup role.

“You’ve got to keep the team up, give them all the support you can,” Marshall said. “But for me, as a quarterback, one of the main things I do on the bench is analyze the defense of the other team, to see which back might be weak. I watch the ends very carefully.”

“He was tremendous teammate. He never once complained about his status on the team. He was great on the scout team for our defense running the opponent’s offense and had great comradery with the defense.”

—- Jimmy Raye, Michigan State Hall of Fame quarterback
Michigan State presented each 1965 and 1966 national championship team member an individual plaque at the 2016 reunion.

That’s how Raye — whose pioneering coaching career as a Black assistant college and NFL coach spanning five decades was launched by Daugherty hiring him in 1972 — remembers Marshall.

“He was tremendous teammate. He never once complained about his status on the team. He was great on the scout team for our defense running the opponent’s offense and had great comradery with the defense. All the guys on defense really liked him.”

In 2016, Marshall attended a 50th anniversary for the 1966 national championship team that also recognized the 1965 national champs. Washington introduced Marshall to the Friday night dinner audience, citing his Vietnam service and career in public education. At halftime of Saturday’s game, he was introduced on the field with the rest of the players.

In 2017, he attended the 51st anniversary of the Game of the Century, a joint Notre Dame-Michigan State affair when the Irish played at Spartan Stadium. It was the last time he saw defensive coordinator Hank Bullough, who died two years later at age 85. Bullough was as much his coach as any other assistant; together they prepared the defense.

“Hank always told I was his quarterback,” Marshall said. “Hank pushed me.”

As the Spartans prepared for the 1966 Game of the Century, Marshall played the role of Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty. The two met for the first time at the joint reunion.

“You don’t read about everybody, but there are no small roles in a big game. You’ve got to have your scout team give you a really good look for what to expect on Saturday.”

— Terry Hanratty
Notre Dame and Michigan State quarterbacks at the 2017 joint reunion (L-R): Eric Marshall (1963-67), Steve Juday (1963-65, 1965 All-American; Michigan State Hall of Fame), Jimmy Raye (1965-67, 1966 All-Big Ten; Michigan State Hall of Fame), John Mullen (1964-1966) and Notre Dame’s Terry Hanratty.

“It was pretty to cool to meet someone that played you,” said Hanratty, an All-American, three-time Top 10 Heisman finisher and owner of two Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl rings. “You don’t read about everybody, but there are no small roles in a big game. You’ve got to have your scout team give you a really good look for what to expect on Saturday. It’s not an easy thing to do.

“For us, how do you have someone emulate Bubba Smith, who is 6-8, 285 pounds, or George Webster, who’s 6-5, 230 and can run like a deer? There was a lot of talent on both teams. I still say to this day those are the two best teams ever to play each other.”

The long list of talent totaled seven 1967 NFL first-round draft picks (four Michigan State, three Notre Dame); 17 overall 1967 picks; 42 draft choices among three classes on the field (freshmen were ineligible until 1972) and 33 pro players. But that’s not all.

Among the seniors there were six College Football Hall of Famers (Michigan State’s foursome and Notre Dame’s Page and Jim Lynch); two College Football Hall of Fame coaches (Daugherty and Ara Parseghian); seven consensus first-team All-Americans; 16 overall All-American selections (first and second team); three players in the 1966 Heisman Trophy top 10 voting (Notre Dame’s Nick Eddy, third; Jones, sixth; and Hanratty, eighth); and Lynch claimed the Maxwell Award for the nation’s best player.

A MOTHERLY EDUCATION ADVOCATE

Marshall’s mother, who lived to age 100, did more than spur her family’s academic quests. On Dec. 27, 2013, the Oxford Eagle ran a front-page story chronicling her life with this headline:

Beloved educator Susie Marshall passes away.”

A 1930s graduate of HBCU Rust College, she served Oxford and Lafayette County schools 41 years, 1937 to 1978. From 1952 to 1964, she was Lafayette’s Supervisor for 26 Black schools.

In 1955, a year after the Brown v. Board Education Supreme Court case ruled public school segregation was unconstitutional, Marshall convinced the Oxford Eagle’s young White publisher, Jesse Phillips, to photograph inferior conditions at Black schools. The state resisted Brown v. Board until 1970, but at least by then Marshall had the law on her side — if not cold hearts and cruel minds.

“She was my inspiration.”

— Eric Marshall
The Oxford Eagle’s front-page story on Dec. 27, 2013 remembered Susie Marshall.

“She was a brilliant lady,” said Phillips in the 2013 article. “Her life was dedicated to provide the best possible education for the African-American students. I respected her as an outstanding educator all the years that I’ve known her.”

Eric also was quoted: “I watched her and how she undertook difficult choices and it helped me make the decisions I did. She was my inspiration.”

His first life-altering decision was at age 22 in June, 1968 upon opening his draft notice.

Does he seek a college deferment like so many others? President Bill Clinton, 74, avoided Vietnam with college deferments. Vice-president Dick Cheney, 79, had five deferments. President Donald Trump, 74, also had five. Democratic 2020 Presidential candidate Joe Biden, 77, was granted deferments.

Or does he sign up for OCS?

Marshall didn’t’ see a dilemma. His mother and father taught him to look for open doors.

“I felt blessed I had an opportunity to go Michigan State and graduate. It was a dream come true. When my friends laughed at me in sixth grade, it really was the impossible dream. I felt I owed it to my country.”

It started out a four-year hitch until he discovered the meritocracy of the Army.

“To be an officer meant something to me. I realized I could make a difference the rest of my life. I liked what being an officer meant as a human being. You could help other people, Black and White.”

From 1977 to 1981 he was posted in West Berlin, the city behind the Iron Curtain, encircled by the Soviet Union-controlled East Germany. There were other foreign posts in Italy and Japan. Stateside he served at The Pentagon, Chicago, Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Bragg in North Carolina and the Presidio in San Francisco.

Along the way, Marshall earned a Masters Degree in Education Administration from the University of Southern California.

As retirement approached while based in San Francisco, it was suggested he take a job as a junior ROTC instructor at the city’s public schools. He rose to principal at Burton High, a school that opened in 1984 through a consent decree between the City of San Francisco and the National Association of Advancement for Colored People. The school sends 75 percent of its diverse and economically disadvantaged students to colleges and universities.

American attitudes and reactions toward racism are in constant flux, sometimes forward, too many times backward. They often have been exploited over the flag and patriotism.

“What does he know about disrespecting the flag?” He didn’t serve a day in the military. How would he know?”

— Eric Marshall

The Army officer in Marshall required his high school students to stand for the national anthem. He wasn’t shy about grabbing a shoulder with stern words. The Black man in him, especially from the South, understands why today’s college and pro athletes take a knee protesting abusive police tactics.

The veteran in him has a clear opinion on Trump politicizing the flag; Trump criticizes athletes for expressing their opinions.

“What does he know about disrespecting the flag?” Marshall said. “He didn’t serve a day in the military. How would he know?”

Recently, The Atlantic attributed quotes through sources that Trump has said soldiers who served and died in Vietnam and other wars were “losers” and “suckers.”

From Aug. 5, 1964 to May 7, 1975, 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam out of 9.1 million Americans that did a military tour, according to government records. Marshall and others like him signed up with a purpose. It was true then, and it remains so with the uptick of American volunteers following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“I don’t think any of us felt like they were losers or suckers,” Bleier said. “If we did something we didn’t want to do, there was still a sense of patriotism – however you wanted to define it. At the core there a sense of commitment that allowed those people to go.”

THE NEW SOUTH’S OPEN DOORS

A week upon Marshall’s return home from Vietnam, he and his mother walked in downtown Oxford, not far from campus, when a car backfired.

“I immediately got into the down position by a trash can,” said Marshall.

He laughs now, but he remembers getting up, brushing himself off and noticing “people looking at me strangely.”

A Black man creating a scene on 1962 downtown Oxford sidewalk was no laughing matter, but in 1971 Marshall went about his day’s business, including entering stores that not long ago had banned his skin color.

The segregated world he left behind had changed so much, his mother, at age 59, stepped through the Ole Miss door Meredith had opened. She earned a Masters Degree in 1972, the same year the football program dressed its first Black player, Robert Williams.

Marshall’s daughter, Erica Marshall Lee, is an assistant professor in clinical psychiatry at Emory University and attached as a faculty coordinator at Grady Hospital in Atlanta. She has three Ole Miss degrees, Bachelors, Masters and Ph.D.

“I saw the respect he had as an African-American male.”

— Erica Marshall Lee on her father
Emory University professor Erica Marshall Lee has three degrees from Ole Miss.

Her father wanted her to attend Stanford, her grandmother Ole Miss, but she preferred UCLA. When a UCLA campus housing arrangement fell through at the last minute, her default destination was the school that barred her father.

Education as a Marshall was a given, even as an Army brat growing up on bases around the world. But what she observed looming larger than her father’s college degree was the respect he commanded. White soldiers addressed her father, “Yes, sir” or “No, sir” – respect he didn’t necessarily have off the base. That was especially true in Georgia and North Carolina.

“I think what I gained was the hard work and the regimentation of the military,” she said. “I saw the respect he had as an African-American male.”

There were other changes. North Seventh St., the route the Army took to campus in 1962, was renamed Martin Luther King Dr.

In 2006, Ole Miss unveiled a campus statue of Meredith. In the summer of 2020, protests by the state’s Black college athletes played a role in the Mississippi state legislature voting to remove the Confederate Battle emblem from the state flag.

The 21st-century athletes made a bold and justified statement. That was more than the 1960s Rebels coaches and players learned from the Ole Miss Riot of 1962.

Retrospective football stories from 1962 focus on an unbeaten all-white Ole Miss believing its shot at a national championship was robbed. Conjecture lingers the 10-0 Rebels were victims of reverse racism in the poll voting, finishing No. 3 behind No. 1 USC (11-0). That ironic victimization was placated in 2012; the school awarded the players national championship rings.

Such stories, though, overlook legendary Ole Miss coach Johnny Vaught’s reaction to an integrated campus; he maintained the status quo.

It was left to his successor, Billy Kinard, to play the Rebels’ first Black player in 1972, the same year Ole Miss, Georgia and LSU were the last three SEC holdouts.

Vaught wasn’t alone in the South’s foot-dragging club.

Ole Miss football coach Johnny Vaught’s program remained segregated another decade after James Meredith’s admission desegregated the campus.

Clemson coach Frank Howard resisted pressure to integrate his program from president Robert Edwards as early as 1963. Howard retired after the 1969 season. His successor, Cecil Ingram, recruited Marion Reeves as the Tigers’ first Black player in 1970.

Alabama coach Bear Bryant’s campus desegregated in 1963; eight years later he dressed his first Black football player. Bryant has been hailed for scheduling the 1970 USC-Alabama game, but the dubious mythology surrounding that night overlooked five SEC schools — including Deep South campuses Auburn and Mississippi State — integrated before Bryant gave up the status quo.

Marshall’s 1960s voyage spanned broader views than status quo southern coaches were able to grasp. The Underground Railroad was as much about the life stories of players like Marshall as it was the stars leading the way to Big Ten and national titles.

Bob Dylan’s second album featured a ballad on the Ole Miss Riot of 1962.

BOB DYLAN’S ODE 

The Ole Miss Riot of 1962 tugged at Bob Dylan’s heart. The young folksinger was working on his second album, “The Free Wheelin’ Bob Dylan,” at the time. He added “Oxford Town” to the lineup of a platinum success that featured the 1960s anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

A verse from Oxford Town

Oxford town around the bend
Come to the door, he couldn’t get in
All because of the color of his skin
What do you think about that, my friend?

Bob Dylan

Reader, you previously didn’t know Eric “Ruben” Marshall’s journey through American history. Now you do. To borrow from Dylan:

What do you think of that, my friend?

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jim Proebstle

    Tom, Thanks for the work you do to expose the stories and truth lived by those who rode the underground RR to Michigan State.

  2. Jim Sargent

    Tom Shanahan: Your profile of Eric Marshall and the Underground Railroad is excellent. I have read other articles avour MSU’s multicultural history, but much of this article is new to me. Marshall is a shining example of the value of intercollegiate sports. Jim Sargent, MA ’68, PhD ’72

    1. Tom Shanahan

      Thank you. Spread the word. If you’re an MSU grad, an excerpt is in this month’s MSU Alumni Magazine and Newsletter.

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