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The game desegregating college football in the South happened 50 years ago

On Nov. 29, 1969, the all-black team of Florida A&M took on the virtually all-white team of the University of Tampa before a crowd of 45,000.

During the turbulent decades when the civil rights movement collided with Jim Crow, college football in the American South was not just some incidental part of segregation. Rather, as the secular religion of the region, it stood as one of the most formidable and fiercely protected pillars of racial injustice. Fifty years ago, one of the most renowned coaches and teams in historically black college football, Jake Gaither’s Florida A&M Rattlers, toppled it.

To appreciate what they accomplished in 1969, now that we are in an era when the leading teams of the nationally dominant Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences routinely abound in African American players, it is essential to turn back the historical clock. While the private and public universities of the former Confederacy begrudgingly enrolled African American students under the pressure of federal law in the early 1960s, they waited as much as a decade later before they fielded black football players.

Progress came belatedly and against major political and athletic opposition. Mississippi’s segregationist governor, Ross Barnett, went to midfield at halftime of an Ole Miss football game in 1962 to deliver a truculent speech extolling the South’s “customs” and “heritage” on the eve of James Meredith’s enrollment. Meredith was the first black student to join the university.

The 1969 “Game of the Century” between top-ranked Texas and No. 2 Arkansas featured two entirely white rosters. The barrier to desegregating football, then, was not judicial but cultural. And no single football team embodied the fusion of gridiron dominance and massive resistance more than the University of Alabama’s. A perennial Top 10 team, Alabama boasted George Wallace as its governor and Bear Bryant as its head coach. Its fight song featured the line, “You’re Dixie’s football pride, Crimson Tide,” a dog whistle implying that each victory was for an entire region and its racial hierarchy.

In the standard narrative of integration and college football, the pivotal moment occurred in 1970, when Bryant’s team was routed on its home field by a USC squad starring a black quarterback and fullback. Certain sports commentators have even posited that Bryant had arranged the game, almost hoping Alabama would lose, specifically to prove why he needed to be able to recruit black players.

The only problem with that version of history is it is wrong. The groundbreaking game in desegregating college football in the South, for teams and fans alike, had taken place a year earlier. On Nov. 29, 1969, the all-black team of Florida A&M took on the virtually all-white team of the University of Tampa before a racially integrated sellout crowd of 45,000, which constituted probably the largest act of mass integration of a public facility since Emancipation.

Merely scheduling such a game had required years of behind-the-scenes effort by Gaither. An erudite man and a keen student of black history, Gaither had remained publicly distant from the vigorous civil rights activity in Tallahassee, Florida, much of its involving A&M students. Yet all along, even as he was portrayed as an Uncle Tom for his amiable relations with Florida’s segregationist politicians, Gaither was planning to strike his blow for the freedom movement.

During 1966 and 1967, Gaither cashed in all the leverage and good will he had accumulated with the state government. He privately lobbied the board of regents, which oversaw state universities including Florida A&M, to allow his Rattlers to play a white team.

There were, however, two significant caveats. The regents, fearful such a game would set off rioting, left no written record of their decision, as I discovered in doing research for a book. And none of the most likely opponents for Florida A&M – not the Miami Hurricanes, not the Florida Gators, not even the Florida State Seminoles, right there in Tallahassee – gave any sign of being willing to tangle with Gaither’s powerful team in a game fraught with political import.

Then Gaither found an ally in the young, newly hired head coach at Tampa, Fran Curci. Curci had divided his childhood between Pittsburgh and Miami, and always felt a visceral abhorrence of segregation. He accepted the job at Tampa in 1968 on the promise from the school’s president that the all-white Spartans would be integrated.

Though Tampa dropped its football program in 1974, during Curci’s three years as head coach, the team was the kind of disruptive “mid-major” we see these days in the NCAA basketball tournament. The Spartans defeated Mississippi State, Tulane, and Louisiana Tech, and ultimately sent players such as quarterback Jim Del Gaizo and John Matuszak into the NFL.

By agreeing to play against Gaither and the Rattlers, Curci hoped to combine idealism with self-interest. The fact that his 1969 squad had several black players on it did nothing to diminish the gravity of the game in civil rights terms.

At one level, the contest would either prove or disprove that the storied football teams and coaches at black colleges – Eddie Robinson at Grambling, John Merritt at Tennessee State, Earl Banks at Morgan State – were the equal or even the better of those white teams and coaches that got all the television coverage and all the sports-section ink.

Implicitly, something even larger hung on the outcome. The doctrine of white supremacy admitted that blacks could be great athletes, given that blacks were essentially animalistic anyway. But no black coach and no black quarterback could possibly have the intellect and character to surpass a white one. How could the Jim Crow system survive such a blow as witnessed in real time in a full stadium?

On that Saturday night 50 years ago, Florida A&M beat Tampa 34-28 in a game that came down to a last, foiled pass into the end zone. In defeat, Curci made a point of telling the assembled media that not only had his team been outplayed but that he had been outcoached.

Years later, speaking to a journalist, Gaither put the stakes in perspective: “That game has to be the most important game of my life, for that proves a game of that type – with tension and competitiveness – could be played between whites and blacks in the Deep South without any undue racial violence with good sportsmanship by both teams and the public. I wanted to prove to myself that it could be done in the deepest state in the Deep South. And we did it.”

 

Samuel G. Freedman, a frequent contributor to The Undefeated, is the author of eight books, including "Breaking The Line," about HBCU football and the Civil Rights Movement.