Sept. 12, 1970, was the first game of the season for USC and Alabama. At the time, the matchup was seen as a clash of two of the nation’s best collegiate football programs, and USC ended up routing Alabama 42-21. In hindsight, the game between Paul “Bear” Bryant’s all-white Crimson Tide and John McKay’s fully integrated Trojans, featuring its all-black backfield, served as a catalyst for the rapid integration of Southeastern Conference football programs.
“You don’t realize at the time [that] it’s happening,” said Sam Cunningham, USC’s fullback from 1970 to 1972. “You realize a day later or a year later, and that’s what happened to me. I realized what we were involved in and how it was a special game.”
Alabama’s racial climate
Two years after the conclusion of the 14-year-long Civil Rights Movement, segregation was outlawed by the federal government, but in the Deep South, both political figures and a majority of the white population were still resistant to change.
“In some ways, slavery never ended,” said John Giggie, an African American history professor at the University of Alabama. “It just simply was transformed into a program of white supremacy.”
The University of Alabama resisted integration until 1963, when Vivian Malone became one of two black students admitted that year. George Wallace, Alabama’s governor, attempted to block Malone’s entrance to the university.
“The reason [the University of] Alabama had resisted integrating itself was because this integration was seen as a bellwether for integration,” Gigge said. “If University of Alabama was to remain all white, that would be a sign, a symbol, of the state’s efforts to maintain segregation as normal, as customary, as effectively the law of the land.”
No matter who was elected during this era, the governor became a figurehead for a population that was resistant to change. Wallace had lost his first governor race to John Patterson due to Patterson’s segregation centric platform.
“When [Wallace] lost to Patterson, he swore that he would never lose a race again over black questions,” Giggie said. “So he came out very aggressively in the next election that he won on his ‘segregation now, forever’ campaign.”
In an environment so heavily influenced by beliefs on segregation, the USC-Alabama game became a critical meeting for the fate of collegiate football.
The face of the Tide
Donning a suit and tie with a houndstooth emblazoned fedora to accompany his 6-foot-3 stature, Paul “Bear” Bryant was, unmistakably, the face of Alabama football.
Governing with an iron fist, Bryant expected nothing less than perfection from his athletes. Throughout his 25-year tenure at the helm of the Crimson Tide, Bryant amassed six national championships, 14 conference championships and 323 career wins.
But Bryant’s legend status wasn’t restricted to his university. To this day, Alabama has never had a professional sports team. Alabama football is the state’s professional sport. This setting allowed Tide coaches to become household names.
“He is a legend and probably was a legend even by that time,” said Ken Gaddy, the director of the Paul W. Bryant Museum in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “He was bigger than life, even at that time.”
Bryant also co-hosted the Bear Bryant Show, an hour-long weekly talk show. Although the show primarily analyzed Alabama football, Bryant also spoke about God, family and the country, furthering himself as an icon among both football fans and members of the Alabama community. Bryant’s show ran in the same time slot as NFL football yet consistently had better ratings than the live professional football games.
The face of the Trojans
On the other side of the field, USC head coach John McKay, entering his 11th season at the helm of the Trojans, had an equally impressive resume. McKay hardly ever fell below a .700 win percentage on his way to a 127-40-8 career record.
At this time, both the Trojans and Crimson Tide were widely respected as football powerhouses, but the teams could not be more different, as McKay’s Trojans sported a fully integrated squad.
As a matter of fact, USC had its first black player in 1925 — guard Brice Taylor. McKay’s 1970 team was not only fully integrated, but it also featured USC’s all-black backfield, consisting of Cunningham at fullback, Jimmy Jones at quarterback and Clarence Davis at running back.
“[My dad’s] view, in general, was that he truly didn’t care what color you were,” said J.K. McKay, John McKay’s son. “It didn’t matter. They were football players.”
In 1970 and 1971, USC had its worst two seasons in nearly a decade, finishing 6-4 in both. Heading into the 1970 season, USC was highly regarded, coming off a 10-0-1 season and Rose Bowl win. Alabama was sporting its worst season in the Bryant era. Regardless, both teams were seen as football powerhouses.
The addition of an 11th regular season game in 1970 created a spare game on the schedule. The historic USC-Alabama game was born out of friendship.
“Bear Bryant and my dad were the closest of friends,” J.K. said. “Bear and his wife stayed at our house all the time in the offseason. They’d be at our house a lot.”
Though the game started as a friendly showdown between two of the greatest collegiate football coaches of all time, it would later become an unexpectedly significant match.
Entering foreign territory
The 1970 USC football team made its way to Alabama, and although the team was apprehensive about entering the unknown of the deep South, its focus was on winning a football game.
“You see images on television, and the civil rights issues at that time were pretty intense. I understood that but never really thought about it,” Cunningham said. “My focus was to play a football game against a very good college football program.”
While lynchings, bombings and burnings were still prevalent in 1970, some players felt a sense of security solely because they were USC, and they were here to play football.
“You had those thoughts that [racially motivated violence] happens down here,” Jones said. “But we also had that feeling that we were absolved from that because we were USC, and this was more just football than it was the race thing.”
While the team was traveling through Alabama, it was greeted by racial slurs and gawking stares from white members of the Alabama community, Jones said. Though it was met with criticism from the majority of Alabamians, USC’s fully-integrated football team offered a glimmer of hope for black Americans.
Jones said that as the USC team bus navigated the streets in the predominantly black neighborhoods of Birmingham, people went out onto their lawns and porches to cheer and give well wishes to what was more than just a football team.
“They saw us as a group of people that could maybe help make their lives better down there,” Jones said.
When USC ran out of the tunnel that September night, however, the Trojans were greeted by a stark white crowd, as black Americans were still not allowed to enter Legion Field. The black community didn’t let that stop them from watching the game that would ultimately lead to the SEC’s integration.
“They were on rooftops and the hills where they could look into the stadium,” Jones said.
The game’s spectators witnessed a blowout. The Trojans were bigger, stronger and faster. Cunningham posted 135 yards on 12 carries, topped off with two touchdowns en route to a 42-21 USC win.
“[Alabama] hadn’t seen anyone like [Cunningham]: 6-foot-3, 210 to 215 pounds, [good] speed,” Jones said. “They were outmatched for someone like Cunningham coming through the holes that were wide [open].”
Jones dismantled the Alabama defense on bootleg keepers while aiding USC in a 559-offensive-yard effort, which he heavily attributed to the strong talent among the Trojans.
“We just had so many horses,” Jones said in a postgame interview with the Los Angeles Times. “These guys are all so good that it really doesn’t matter who we have out there.”
Jones believes that a crushing victory aided in alleviating some of the racially-driven preconceived notions many fans had.
“[Winning] takes away a lot of the opinions people had about you going into the game, whether it is a race issue or a [talent issue],” Jones said.
Making the switch
Although he is mostly remembered for the awards he brought back to Tuscaloosa and his staggeringly great career record of 323–85–17, Bryant became the first head coach in the SEC to integrate a collegiate football team.
In a Los Angeles Times article by Jeff Prugh titled “USC-Alabama Proved More Than a Football Game” published two days afterwards, Prugh wrote about his experience witnessing the shift that had already begun among the Crimson loyals.
“‘You know,’ said a man in a plaid shirt. ‘I sure bet the Bear wished he had two or three of them n—- boys on his team NOW. They were huge,’” the article read.
The following year, Bryant made the switch, as running back Wilbur Jackson, born and raised in Ozark, Ala., became the first black football player to play on a football scholarship at the University of Alabama.
USC and Alabama met again to open the 1971 season. The game was much different this time, however. Not only was the game played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but the Trojans were bested in a 17-10 game by a now albeit barely integrated Crimson Tide.
Though Jackson was a single, small speck in the massive dynasty that was Alabama football, Bryant’s decision was, for the most part, well-received by the Alabama community.
“If Coach Bryant was for it, then everybody else was pretty much for it too,” Gaddy said. “That made it easier for other people to accept and move forward.”
In the ensuing years, Alabama football continued to integrate and by the 1980 season, the Crimson Tide’s roster featured as many African American players as any other elite collegiate football team. For the remainder of the Bryant era, Alabama failed to fall below a .667 winning percentage.
Players, coaches, football fans and analysts have had nearly 50 years to reflect on the historic game that took place that September night in Birmingham. At the time, it was football: The University of Southern California versus the University of Alabama.
Looking back at it, the game stood for much more — integration versus segregation.
Those close to the situation have a tendency to overstate the impact of USC and Cunningham’s effect on integration in the South.
It is impossible to deny that the game of football, a language Alabamians understood, served as a vehicle to aid in the Civil Rights’ efforts of great men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to prove that skin color should never dictate our beliefs of an individual or race.
Football is a game, but for one September night in Birmingham, it was so much more.