By TOM SHANAHAN
Martin Luther King Jr. visited Michigan State University’s campus 56 years ago today at the invitation of president John Hannah, African-American professor Dr. Robert Green and Michigan State’s student government. MLK spoke to a full house of 4,000 that greeted him with a standing ovation on Feb. 11, 1965 at the MSU Auditorium.
Among the crowd was Gene Washington, a passenger aboard Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s 1960s Underground Railroad teams that led college football integration with its first fully integrated rosters. Washington arrived in 1963 from segregated La Porte, Texas, and graduated a two-time All-American receiver. He was a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings and inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2012.
“It meant a lot to me to see Dr. King speak,” Washington said. “I was impressed with the turnout — the students, the whole university. I was enjoying how nice it was at Michigan State with integration. My two roommates were white students on swimming scholarships — Ed Glick and Gary Dilley. It was my first integration housing experience. We lived together, studied together and supported each other in our sports. But at the same time it was little difficult for me because it was 1963 (fall, freshman year) and my family was still back home in Texas dealing with segregation.”
Only two months prior King’s Michigan State appearance, he had accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. Over the next month, “Bloody Sunday” erupted in Selma, Alabama. King took part in the second and third attempts to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge.
As King spoke, he said, “Time is neutral, and the time is always right to do right.” Those were words taken from his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail. He was responding to Alabama white ministers that asked him to show patience, to wait for the “right time” to continue his Civil Rights protests.
He often delivered the message, but in East Lansing the words applied to Daugherty’s teams more than any other college football program. Daugherty, with the support of southern Black high school coaches laying the Underground Railroad tracks, didn’t wait for the “right time” to form college football’s first fully integrated rosters.
King’s appearance was a fund-raiser to support voter registration efforts in the South. He praised Hannah, whom President Dwight Eisenhower had appointed in 1957 as Chairman of the Civil Rights Commission following the U.S. Army-enforced desegregation of Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas.
By 1965, Ernest Green (no relation to Robert Green), who was the first African-American to graduate from Central High, had matriculated through Michigan State on an anonymous scholarship. It wasn’t until after Hannah died in 1991 and Hannah’s family went through his papers that Green learned Hannah was his benefactor.
He also praised Michigan State’s All University Student Government for organizing the Student Education Program, a summer project of students volunteering to to travel to Rust College, an Historically Black College and University in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
“I would also like to commend the All University Student Government for initiating this very significant summer education project to take place at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi,” said King, opening his speech. “This is great expression of your humanitarian concern. And I know it it will go a long, long way to give new hope and new encouragement to the people of Mississippi who have struggled so long to get into the mainstream of American life.
“This project reveals to us that the student generation of today is not an apathetic generation. There are many, many students who are revealing every day this is a concerned generation of students, concerned with the social, political and economic problems we face in this nation all over the world. And I know this program, this project, will have the absolute support of the faculty members and students of the great university and the support it needs so much.”
As King continued, he urged the government adopt Hannah’s recommendation to use federal registrars to overcome widespread discriminatory voting practices in the South. Six months after King’s visit to Michigan State, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“I was excited about the new voting opportunity,” Washington said. “I was especially excited about Dr. King’s leadership in encouraging integration. In segregated Texas, we couldn’t dine at restaurants or attend integrated schools. We had three restrooms one for white men, one for white women and the colored restroom for men and women.”
King’s speech didn’t drift to football, but in February 1965 spring football was approaching. The Spartans were about to launch a remarkable two-year run with back-to-back Big Ten and national championships.
Their success, seen on TV screens throughout the nation, was instrumental to desegregation of southern football programs and integrated programs recruiting more than the status quo of a half-dozen or so Black athletes.
“Time is neutral,” King told the audience, “and the time is always right to do right.”
Daugherty also knocked down the last position of white supremacy on the football field when he decided time was neutral for starting a Black quarterback. Jimmy Raye of Fayetteville, N.C., was the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title, a milestone recognized by the National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame.
Daugherty later encouraged Raye to join his staff in 1971 as a pioneer among Black assistant coaches. Raye moved on to the NFL in 1977 and was one of the first Black NFL coordinators when John Robinson appointed him offensive coordinator in 1983 with Los Angeles Rams.
“He was one the most courageous persons I’ve had the privilege to be associated with in my athletic career,” said Raye at the end of his 36-year coaching in the NFL. “I can only imagine the pressure he must have been under and received when he made the decision to make me the starting quarterback in the mid-1960s. Most of the things that happened to me in my coaching career – if not all – came as a direct result of the opportunities he gave me. I will be forever grateful for courage he had and the kind of individual he was to give a chance to a young man who was denied a chance in the South pursue an academic and athletic career.”
Another Daugherty legacy was the number of Black players on his roster who did not turn out to be stars, starters or even play. It is important to understand the 1950s and 1960s was an era when college coaches largely signed only the top Black high school stars. Their rosters were limited to a half-dozen or so Black athletes.
The scholarship limitations can be compared to the early days of Major League Baseball after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947. Teams began plucking players from the Negro Leagues, but only the biggest stars — Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, future Hall-of-Famers. They didn’t sign borderline Black prospects that may or may not develop or take a white player’s job on the bench.
Daugherty was willing to take a chance on a lightly recruited Black player who may not turn out to be a star. That’s why his numbers far exceeded those at other 1960s national championship teams. Michigan State had a long history of Midwest-based integrated rosters, but in the 1960s southern Black high school coaches contacted Daugherty about their players, adding more talent.
Daugherty’s network from North Carolina to Texas included 44 Black southern recruits from 1959 to his final season, 1972. Only 10 of the 44 were All-Big Ten or All-American players, but 30 (68 percent) graduated. The chief engineer was Willie Ray Smith Sr., the father of Michigan State College Football Hall of Famer Bubba Smith. Willie Ray Sr., the coach at Charlton-Pollard High in Beaumont, Texas, near Houston, boarded nine players between 1963 and 1967.
In 1966, Michigan State had 20 black players with 11 starters. When Michigan State played Notre Dame in the 1966 Game of the Century, the Irish had only one Black player, Alan Page. But Notre Dame wasn’t alone.
In 1967, USC won a national title with only seven Black players, although the Southern California school had a long history of integration. USC and coach John McKay were a decade behind Daugherty and Michigan State, but by 1972, the Trojans were following Daugherty’s progressive model. USC’s 1972 national championship team numbered 23 black players.
Daugherty’s courage to act without waiting for alumni approval separated him from other coaches. He was on the right side of history. It was in the mid-1960s that MLK began to appeal to the morality of Americans in the cause of the Civil Rights movement.
Alabama’s first Black students were admitted in 1963, but between the 1963 Birmingham violence and the 1965 Selma violence, Alabama coach Bear Bryant was unmoved. He waited until 1970 to sign Wilbur Jackson as his first black player — one year after Alabama high schools desegregated and in-state rival Auburn had signed James Owens. Birmingham, home to Legion Field, was known as “Bombingham” for the number Black homes and churches bombed.
PHOTO: Duffy Daugherty and Jimmy Raye
Daugherty’s football program and Hannah’s campus reflected MLK’s “Time is neutral” words delivered on Feb. 11, 1965 at the MSU Auditorium. When King finished speaking, the crowd rose again with another standing ovation.
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