Many people are familiar with the big stories of racial integration in sports — Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers, Althea Gibson at Wimbledon. But after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many lesser-known African American athletes became “firsts” — whether they liked that distinction or not.
“I wasn’t interested in being a pioneer, or making history, or doing any of that,” says Perry Wallace, who, in 1966, helped break the color-barrier in college basketball’s Southeastern Conference, when he played for Vanderbilt University. “That was not — and still isn’t, quite frankly — my personality. My attitude was just: Drop me off at Detroit and leave me the hell alone.”
Today Wallace is a law professor at American University. His story unfolds in a new biography by Andrew Maraniss called Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.
People love to tell triumphant stories about the heroes of the civil rights era, but a lot of that is “fluff” Wallace says: “It’s a gritty, dirty, ugly business. And most people are not up for it, including the people who lead and govern the institutions. That was true back then, as it is true now, on various issues, whether it has to do with violence against women, or any number of other challenges. … They are around for the celebration, but not around for the hard part.”
The hard part for Wallace was away games — that’s where the integration effort at Vanderbilt collided with the reality of Southern segregationist support. Nationally, pro-league basketball and baseball were already integrated. But at the college level — most deep South schools were holdouts, refusing even to share the court with black players.
Maraniss says that’s the atmosphere Wallace walked into when Vanderbilt traveled to play the University of Mississippi in 1968. Wallace dreaded these trips to the deep South.
The arenas were tiny, Maraniss says, “with crowds that were small enough where you could actually hear what people were saying. So you would have people back in Nashville listening to the games on the radio, including Perry’s mother laying in a hospital bed, who could hear what was being directed at Perry.”
Wallace says he can still remember the kinds of slurs spat at him: “We’re going to kill you, we’re going to castrate you … People are going spit on you … they’re going to lynch you.” He remembers being called “the n-word, a coon, a jigaboo.”
Wallace he says there’s one scene that will stand out forever in his mind: “It is that of what looked like three generations of a family, and all of them were spitting, screaming, calling me names, and threatening me. This was just great sport for them.”
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