Breaking the SEC color barrier


History lessons have a way of awakening the details that get lost in the depths of sports fans’ memories.

For instance, if you watched Alabama’s 21-0 drubbing of rival LSU in last week’s BCS National Championship Game, you should have felt a connection to the cardinal and gold.

No, junior quarterback Matt Barkley wasn’t slinging the football across the spacious Mercedes-Benz Superdome to  freshman receiver Marqise Lee or sophomore receiver Robert Woods;  junior Curtis McNeal wasn’t tearing off any long, back-breaking runs; and Nickell Robey wasn’t shrewdly patrolling the secondary. If they had, the game might have been more exciting.

But if not for USC’s fateful trip to Tuscaloosa in September 1970, the game of college football, the SEC and the 2011 Crimson Tide might not be what they are today.

Though the SEC is considered the belle of the ball when it comes to athletic excellence on the football field, the 1960s exposed a different side.

Despite winning  a nation-high 60 games, three national championships and four SEC regular season titles, there was not a single black player on the Tides’ roster.

While Bryant would apologize to his coaching staff following the 1966 season, no black players were offered scholarships over the next four years and only one black player was added to the freshman team.

As much as national championships and Heisman trophies contribute to the tradition of USC football, an unabashed openness to integrate should not be lost when discussing the history of the Trojans.

Dating back to 1925, with All-American Brice Taylor, USC has been known for playing the best players, regardless of race or creed. And that tradition was personified with the Heisman-esque careers of Mike Garrett and O.J. Simpson in the 1960s. USC was miles ahead of the integration curve before most schools, SEC or otherwise, realized the issue even existed.

The Trojans’ progressive thinking caught the attention of Bryant and before the 1970 season, he called legendary coach John McKay. The rest, as they say, is history.

Led by a backfield consisting of quarterback Jimmy Jones, running back Clarence Davis and fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham, all of whom were black, McKay’s Trojans entered Legion Field on Sept. 12, 1970 looking not only to win a 60-minute football game, but to change the way people viewed the intersection between race and sport.

In front of a hostile crowd of 70,000-plus rabid Southerners, Cunningham stole the show with two touchdowns and 135 yards of total offense, en route to a 42-21 bashing of the Tide.

For Bryant, the devastating home defeat was really a win. Just as he had hoped, USC had silenced a crowd of incredibly narrow-minded fans and, in doing so, promoted the need for integration across all programs, regardless of geographical location or pervasive political ideologies.

Slowly but surely, the Crimson Tide would begin to offer scholarships and roster spaces to some of the top talent in the country, and over the next 40 years, the program would add six more national championships to its already remarkable resume.

To the average sports fan who goes perusing through old box scores on Wikipedia, the night of Sept. 12, 1970, appears as just another nonconference showdown, no different from LSU-Oregon this year or USC-Ohio State in 2009.

But that’s the beauty of a history lesson — sometimes you learn that 60 minutes between the lines can have the power to influence the next four decades of growth outside of it.

 

“For the love the game” runs  Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email David at dulberg@usc.edu


6 replies
  1. CLEVE WATSON
    CLEVE WATSON says:

    Pretty good article on how things changed for college football in the South because of coach Bryant and the USC Trojans. It is amazing that only 60 years ago the civil rights movement was in its infancy and now we are hard pressed to find such overt discrimination in this country. The US is still evolving as is college football. Thanks to those that make our country great and those that have made college football what it is today.

  2. robby
    robby says:

    If you would do a bit of research you would know that Wilbur Jackson was the first African-American scholarship player at Alabama. He was a freshman in 1970 when USC played bama.

  3. Kate Kelly
    Kate Kelly says:

    Dave,
    What a great article… You are absolutely right. We look at today’s players and assume they have all always been eligible to play. As you point out, that is not so…I’ve written a lot about the color line in baseball and had wondered about it in football so thanks for writing this.

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