This year marks the 50th anniversary of a watershed year for the NCAA men’s Division I basketball tournament. Louisville earned the national championship Monday in a Final Four field that also included Michigan, Syracuse and Wichita State. Now is a good time for all sports fans to pause and reflect on the college basketball finals held 50 years ago.
The year 1963 was a busy year in the civil rights movement. This month in 1963 saw the beginning of the so-called Children’s Marches in Birmingham, Ala. These daily marches led to the use by the police of tear gas, fire hoses and police dogs to brutally break up the marches. Hundreds of people were arrested. The nightly news reports on TV brought this activity into the homes of many people who had only vaguely been aware of the movement. April 16 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered June 12, 1963, in the driveway outside his home in Jackson, Miss. Only a few days earlier Alabama Gov. George Wallace had executed his famous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door in a futile attempt to block integration of the University of Alabama. That same year federal court cases forced the desegregation of public schools in Mobile, Ala., and Birmingham.
Finally, on Sept. 15 members of the United Klan of American set off a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four young girls getting dressed after Sunday School to sing in the choir. It took years before the four men responsible for that heinous crime were brought to justice. In August of that year, more than 250,000 people gathered at the Washington Monument for a rally for equal rights. The crowd was treated to one of the great speeches of the history of the movement from King—the “I have a Dream” speech.
That year saw racial change come to the NCAA basketball tournament, as well. The Mississippi State team won its fourth Southeastern Conference championship under Coach Babe McCarthy. The three previous times the team won it did not accept an invitation to play in the NCAA tournament because state law prohibited public school teams from playing against integrated teams.
In 1963, McCarthy, with support from the school president, Dr. Dean Colvard, literally sneaked the team out of Starkville, Miss., at night in private cars and drove to Memphis. There were genuine concerns that police would stop and arrest the party if found. They were able to sneak across the state line and fly out of Memphis to the site of the Mideast Regional semi-finals in East Lansing, Mich. There the team met Loyola of Chicago. The Ramblers regularly started three or four black players, led by forward Vic Rouse and guard Jerry Harkness. Harkness and Joe Dan Gold, the Mississippi State captain, met at mid-court before the game to shake hands.
Loyola won that seminal game, 67-58. The Ramblers went on to win the national championship in a thrilling 60-58 overtime game against Cincinnati, which was trying to win its third straight championship. Rouse scored the winning points on a put back of a missed shot as time expired. That game itself was significant because seven of the 10 players who started that championship game were black—the first final in history where over half the players were African American.
The next two years saw UCLA win its first two national championships using several black players. This set the stage for the famous 1966 game between Texas Western and Adolph Rupp and Kentucky. The Miners started five black players that night at Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse and beat Kentucky’s all white team, 72-65. Many people credit that game with changing the face of college sports forever.
That game may not have been possible, however, had not Coach McCarthy and college President Colvard had the courage to risk jail and censure for doing what they felt was right. That game in East Lansing showed a nation that black and white players could compete with dignity and honor. The game undoubtedly sped up the process of integrating college sports in the south. Within a decade, every school in the Southeastern and Southwest Conferences had integrated their football and basketball teams. Indeed, by 1973 the University of Alabama basketball team regularly started four black players and in 1975 started five on the school’s first NCAA tournament team.
As we watched the college tournament this year, we should reflect back on those events of 1963. The civil rights movement achieved victory in the fight for legal rights. We must admit to ourselves that even today the struggle for economic and social equality continues. It is interesting to note that of the 14 SEC men’s teams that have recently finished their seasons six of them were coached by African Americans. The journey is not yet complete but progress has certainly been made on the long road to equality and justice.
Greg Tyler is the Library Director at the United States Sports Academy. He has also taught courses at the Academy in sports law. He worked for years in youth sports as a coach, league administrator and as a soccer referee. He has a law degree and practiced law for a number of years. You can reach him at email@example.com.