The period between 1955 and 1980 marked a sea tide of change throughout the United States, and especially in the states of the old Confederacy. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education marked the beginning of the end for segregated schools across the South. In December 1955 black citizens of Montgomery, Ala., began an 11-month boycott of the city’s bus system. The boycott ended in November 1956 when the Supreme Court ruled that segregated public transit was illegal.
The two decades or so following these events saw the decline and end of legal segregation across the South and the nation. By the 1970s, African Americans were being elected to public office throughout the South. Congress passed landmark Civil Rights legislation in 1957, 1964 and 1968. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, following the events surrounding the Selma to Montgomery voting rights march and the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a white woman from Michigan who was gunned down by Klan members while transporting black marchers back to Selma.
The major professional sports leagues in the U.S. integrated between 1947 and 1954. In 1961, the venerable Southern Association, a Double-A minor league baseball team in its 66th season, disbanded after the season because of a lack of support from major league clubs. This occurred because of the refusal of its teams to field African American players. During much of that time, there was a black baseball team called the Mobile Black Bears that played at Hartwell Field on dates when the Mobile Bears Southern Association team was out of town.
College sports in the South began to integrate in 1959 when the University of Maryland had a black wide receiver on its roster. Schools across the South integrated their football and men’s basketball teams during the 1960s into the early 1970s.
The last major incident of this period occurred in 1979 in Mobile, Ala., when two members of the United Klan of America (UKA) killed a young African American man named Michael Donald. Both men were convicted in 1980 of murder. Mr. Donald’s mother, represented by attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, successfully sued the UKA and eventually won ownership of a building that was the group’s only asset. This ended the last vestiges of segregation in the South.
There is an untold story waiting to be told and recorded involving African Americans who were in essence on the front lines of integration during this period. These include men like Curtis Horton, Jr. Horton graduated from the all-black Mobile County Training School (MGTS) in the Plateau community in Mobile. He went on to coach in the local school system—both before and after Mobile County public schools integrated in the late 1960s. He endured his share of poor treatment as he blazed a trail for others.
Horton was joined on the front lines by men such as Charles Rhodes, who coached at MCTS from 1951 to 1970, and Albert Terry, who coached at Williamson and Blount High Schools (also historically black schools in Mobile) both before and after integration. There are other people who have stories to tell. Some of them are names the public may have heard of, such as Cleon Jones, who is a graduate of MCTS and played for the New York “Miracle Mets” team of 1969 and is still active in the Mobile community today.
Many of these people, however, are people whose names are unknown to the general public. They were present and participated in this important piece of American history. Their memories and thoughts offer important insights into those times.
One of the stories already discussed with several of these individuals involves a high school football game played each Thanksgiving Day between MCTS and Central High School in Mobile. Central opened its doors in 1946 and quickly became the main rival in athletics of MCTS. For several years, volunteers erected a wooden fence around a football field carved out of a vacant lot across the street from MCTS. There were no stands but tickets were sold and several thousand people would come to watch the game every Thanksgiving Day.
Around 1952, the schools got permission to use the city-owned Ladd Stadium for that one game each year. Otherwise, black schools had to play their games on makeshift fields or at the city’s baseball facility, Hartwell Field. The game was called the Thanksgiving Day Classic, and according to reports, drew crowds of more than 25,000 people. Fans dressed up in their finest clothes and the game became a major social event. Yet, the game received no coverage in the local white press or from local television stations. As was typical in those times, the white community simply pretended that the game did not exist. This type of phantom existence was what prompted the author Ralph Ellison to title his epic work on black sociology in white America “The Invisible Man.”
The realization that these people are getting older provided the spark to come up with a proposal to conduct a project that records their thoughts. The United States Sports Academy is sponsoring a project that seeks to record audio and video interviews with these individuals. Many of these interviews will be conducted on the campus of MCTS. The school alumni association has been given possession of a building on the campus, now a middle school, and has created a museum of sports memorabilia affiliated with the school’s past. This past includes people such as Henry Aaron, Billy Williams and Willie McCovey, to name a few. One of the leaders of this group is William Clark, who was a successful educator before and after integration and served 26 years in the Alabama legislature.
There are also people like Theodore Spradley, a three-sport star at MCTS during the last years before the old black high school league in Alabama was merged into the all-while association. Spradley went on to run track at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He then coached track and taught school for years, beginning in the early days of integrated schools.
Sports were a vehicle that many commentators believe helped ease the tensions associated with integration in the South. As an agent of social change, sport had a major impact on society—an impact still felt today. Today’s young adults can watch documentaries on the juxtaposition of football and campus life when Ole Miss integrated in the fall of 1962. They can also watch documentaries and read a book about the 1970 football game in Birmingham between the all-while Alabama Crimson Tide and the fully-integrated team from the University of Southern California (USC). Many people believe that Paul Bear Bryant scheduled the two-game series with his good friend and USC coach John McKay, in part, so that he could ease the path to integrating his football team.
There is a story to be told by people who are less well known but who also were there at a crucial time in history. The vehicle to tell their story is sport. The project being conducted under the auspices of the United States Sports Academy hopes to preserve this story for future generations.
To watch a video about the project, go to the Academy’s YouTube channel by clicking here.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.