PHOTO: Pro-southern historians in the 1920s captured the narrative of the Civil War, and Robert E. Lee’s statue stood over Richmond, Virginia, streets until it finally came down in 2021. A comparison can be made to Bear Bryant apologists and USC fiction writers capturing the college football integration narrative.
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“History writes people out of the story. It’s our job to write them back in.”
— David Maraniss, Pulitzer prize-winning biographer
By TOM SHANAHAN
I’d prefer to stick to the facts traveling the road that tells the story of Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty’s 1960s teams leading college football integration, but signposts appear along the route advertising myths and fiction surrounding the 1970 USC-Alabama game.
We’re supposed to believe Alabama coach Bear Bryant waved his wand on a Saturday September night at Legion Field in Birmingham, and America awoke enlightened on race relations without the help of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. One reason the myths and fiction – which weren’t crafted and spread until 20 years after the game was played – worked was people want to view Bryant as a crusader rather than who he was — a man who dragged his feet on integration.
All Bryant needed to do, we’re led to believe, was schedule USC’s Sam Cunningham to run over his all-white team. That, the myth contends, proved to bigoted southerners that Black athletes deserve to play football. (If it was true, why Bryant waited until 1970 was never raised in the storyline.)
Lane Demas, a Central Michigan University historian and author on college football integration (Integrating the Gridrion: Black Civil Rights and College Football), points out the absurdity.
“I still believe the Cunningham story is not about celebrating Cunningham or USC, nor is it even really about celebrating Bryant or Alabama,” Demas says. “It’s one of the many White stories that emerge in the South during the 1970s that were meant to denigrate King, the countless marches and protests, the student sit-ins and even the Civil Rights Act, and U.S. Supreme court. The ultimate point of the Cunningham-Bryant myth is, ‘See, we didn’t need any of that other stuff.’”
You won’t see Demas’ quote regurgitated as frequently as the snappy-yet-apocryphal words, “Sam Cunningham did more for integration in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King in 20 years.”
The myths might as well include Bear Bryant mounting Traveler, USC’s horse mascot, riding to midfield and announcing to the Legion Field crowd that African Americans are now permitted to play football, although he might have to shout it over cries that they still shouldn’t be able to vote.
Hyperbolic? Yes. Off base? No.
College football lore has been stamped by misleading impressions through two groups: pro-Alabama writers, aka known as Bear Bryant apologists, and USC fiction writers. They successfully took a page from 1920s pro-southern historians who shifted the Civil War narrative.
The pro-southern 1920s historians captured a Civil War narrative that has portrayed the South fighting for States Rights – not to preserve slavery. They successfully framed Confederate General Robert E. Lee as a gallant hero. Not the traitor he was, especially as a West Point graduate. Statues were erected and schools named for Lee.
Meanwhile, Union General Ulysses S. Grant was cast as a butcher and a drunk. Lost to history was President Teddy Roosevelt’s belief Grant should be grouped in history with Washington and Lincoln.
As author Ta-Nehisi Coates says in the History Channel’s 2020 documentary on Grant, “And so, the Confederates lost the Civil War, but they certainly won the war of the myth. And Grant was on the wrong side of the myth.”
A century later, the Black Lives Matter movement has helped enlighten the nation. Schools honoring Lee have stripped his name. A towering statue of Lee standing in Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, since 1890 finally came down in 2021. Without the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd in 2020, Lee’s statue might still tower over Richmond streets.
But as historian Ken Burns, the awarding filmmaker of PBS documentaries says, it’s difficult to steer people back down the right road of history.
“It’s really hard once it’s happened to then try to refocus attention on these things,” Burns told me in an interview.
The truth is myths and fiction casting Bryant as a crusader and USC as a model have been at the expense of the true 1960s pioneers. I explain some of this in my 2014 book:
RAYE of LIGHT
Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans and the integration of college football
Foreword by Tony Dungy
The pivotal moments history has overlooked include an Associated Press report in 1962 that noted Michigan State’s 17 Black athletes was “the largest delegation of Negro athletes in major college football.”
The 1960s began as a decade with all-white southern schools adhering to Jim Crow laws. But they weren’t alone. Throughout the nation, integrated programs followed an unwritten quota limiting their rosters to a half-dozen or so Black athletes. Duffy Daugherty smashed those quotas.
USC was one of those unwritten quota schools. The Trojans numbered only five Black players on their 1962 national title team and seven on their 1967 national championship team. In heavily populated and diverse Los Angeles, a school had to work at limiting its roster to a half-dozen or so.
Also know this about USC: Showtime’s 1970 USC-Alabama game documentary, “Against the Tide,” prominently touts Brice Taylor as the school’s first Black All-American player in 1925. What the film doesn’t tell you was USC omitted Taylor’s name from its annual media guides until the late 1950s. Brad Pye Jr., a writer for the Los Angeles Sentinel, a Black newspaper, exposed the omission.
USC didn’t abandon its unwritten quota until the late 1960s. A little-known fact was the Trojans only had four Black starters in their 42-21 rout of Alabama on September 12, 1970, at Legion Field in Birmingham. Bryant apologists want you to believe Bryant scheduled the game to lose to show his bigoted fans it was time to recruit Black athletes. In other words, he wanted Sam Cunningham — who wasn’t a starter that night — to romp for what finished as 135 yards and two touchdowns.
However, the myth ignores the fact that in USC’s final 10 games in 1970, Cunningham only ran for 353 yards and three touchdowns. He didn’t strike fear in opponents — as the 1970 myth wants you to believe — until two years later as an All-American senior in 1972.
Another convenient omission: In 1971, Alabama, with 21 white starters and a junior college transfer as its first Black starter (John Mitchell), upset No. 5-ranked USC at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, 17-10.
Another misconception: Alabama’s bigoted fans didn’t “see the future” when USC visited Legion Field. Not unless they were living in a cave. They saw the future earlier, including when Tennessee, Alabama’s bitter Southeastern Conference rival, routed the Crimson Tide 41-14 on the same Legion Field turf. Tennessee was one of six integrated SEC programs by 1969. Tennessee linebacker Jackie Walker, the SEC’s first Black All-American player, sparked the 1969 rout of Alabama with an early interception touchdown return.
The only reason Sam Cunningham is considered a symbolic moment rather than Jackie Walker was Tennessee didn’t have writers with ulterior motives celebrating the Volunteers’ 1969 trip to Legion Field.
These facts and more have been conveniently swept aside by a national media eager to regurgitate the same story. To them, Bear Bryant was John Wayne. They don’t want to tell a story without warts.
Bryant, in reality, was a follower, not a leader. Listen to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Halberstam in a 2002 ESPN article he wrote. “But the Bear was very late to the dance, especially because people are always talking about football coaches as leaders. In this case, he did not lead very well.”
I have researched college football integration since beginning to work on Raye of Light a decade ago. The tipping point to college was the 1966 Game of the Century matching No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Michigan State in a quasi-national championship played before a record TV audience of 33 million.
Michigan State numbered 20 Black players, 11 Black starters, two Black team captains, College Football Hall of Famers George Webster and Clinton Jones, and the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title, Jimmy Raye of then-segregated Fayetteville, N.C.
Notre Dame numbered one Black player – the great Alan Page.
Schools saw more than Michigan State’s success. They saw stereotypes that Black and White athletes unable to play together were shredded through victories, unbeaten Big Ten titles and national championships. The same with stereotypes Black quarterbacks weren’t smart enough or couldn’t play a leadership position.
I dig deeper in my upcoming book due out for football season to celebrate the true pioneers that have otherwise been unfairly overshadowed:
THE RIGHT THING TO DO
Duffy and the True 1960s Pioneers, North and South
Foreword by Ruffin McNeill
Prologue by Mel Tucker
The book explains Daugherty’s success spurred northern schools to abandon their unwritten quotas and southern schools to recruit their first Black players.
In the Jim Crow ACC, SWC and SEC, men such as Wake Forest’s three pioneering Black recruits in 1964, SMU’s Jerry LeVias in 1965, Kentucky’s four recruits in 1966 and 1967, Tennessee’s Lester McClain in 1967 and Auburn’s James Owens in 1969. These men endured abuse and even death threats. But Bryant apologists and USC fiction writers want you to believe Sam Cunningham played the important role.
Others pioneers that I write about in my upcoming book who deserve a better place in history include Arizona State’s Leon Burton, 1955; two Missouri pioneers, 1959; UCLA’s 1961 players staring down Bear Bryant with the help of L.A. Times columnist Jim Murray; Colorado’s 1961 players standing up to the Jim Crow laws in the city of Miami; Houston’s Warren McVea, 1964; Army West Point, Gary Steele in 1966; Missouri’s 1968 integrated roster whipping all-white Alabama 35-10; and Colorado’s 1969 players defying Bear Bryant, 47-33.
All of the figures and moments above cleared the road to the make it possible to play the 1970 USC-Alabama game without incident. If you’re unaware of those stories. that’s the point. USC myths and fiction filled the vacuum of the 1960s media avoiding race on the sports page. I fill in the blanks in, “THE RIGHT THING TO DO.”
In my next TomShanahan.Report article on this subject, I point out overall ESPN’s 2019 series celebrating college football’s 150th anniversary was excellent overall but flawed when addressing integration. Segments in the episode on “Recruiting” that was produced, written and edited by Herzog & Co. have been marred by cavalier research.
In another future story, I’ll explain why actor Tom Selleck, the narrator to Showtime’s “Against the Tide,” should have sent portions of the script back to rewrite.
I’ll put my research up against anybody, anytime, anywhere