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More Gray Than Black and White

Thirty-six years after USC played an unintegrated Alabama football team, authors are still trying to gauge what kind of effect the game had on race relations in the South

October 19, 2006|David Davis | Special to The Times

On Sept. 12, 1970, USC played Alabama on a sultry night in Birmingham. By the numbers, the Trojans prevailed handily, 42-21.

And yet, by all accounts, the Crimson Tide was the big winner.

That discrepancy helps to explain why the game and its impact are so difficult to measure even today, 36 years later. That hasn't stopped a lot of smart people from trying.

In 2005, journalist Allen Barra explored the topic in "The Last Coach: A Life of Paul 'Bear' Bryant," his definitive biography of the Crimson Tide's icon.

This year, sportswriter Don Yaeger has collaborated with Sam "Bam" Cunningham and John Papadakis, two players on the USC team, to publish an entire book about the game: "Turning of the Tide: How One Game Changed the South."

In his new book "Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete" New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden also tackles the subject. Due next year: USC alum Steven Travers' take, with talk of a feature film or documentary to follow.

The reason for the game's mystique is black and white and, thus, irresistible to story-tellers. In 1970, Bryant's team was all-white. But after winning national titles in 1961, 1964 and 1965, Alabama had closed the decade with disappointing (for them) 8-3 and 6-5 records.

An NCAA rule that allowed colleges to schedule an extra game for the 1970 season enabled Bryant to schedule home-and-home games with USC, coached by his good friend John McKay. In 1970, the Trojans' starting backfield was entirely African American. Indeed, USC was the first racially mixed team to play the Crimson Tide in Alabama.

In the game, sophomore fullback Cunningham had 135 yards and two touchdowns in only 12 carries. Halfback Clarence Davis, born and raised (until age 11) in Birmingham, had 76 yards in 13 carries and scored two touchdowns. Black players scored every USC touchdown.

Alabama finished the season 6-5-1. (USC didn't fare much better at 6-4-1.) When they met the next year at the Coliseum, the Crimson Tide had two black players, John Mitchell and Wilbur Jackson. The score: 17-10, Alabama in a whitewash.

The tide had turned. With increasing numbers of African American athletes, Alabama became the premier college football program during the 1970s, going 103-16-1, with a 12-0 season in 1979 and three national championships.

And so, through the mist of time and memory, USC-Alabama has gained mythic stature. To many, the 1970 game has come to represent a milestone in race relations, on par with Jackie Robinson's integration of Major League Baseball in 1947 and the victory of Texas Western and its all-black starting five over Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky Wildcats in the 1966 NCAA basketball title game.

The game in Birmingham, these advocates claim, loosened one of the last strangleholds of the racist South and, in so doing, paved the way for a more equitable system.

Alabama assistant coach Jerry Claiborne summarized this sentiment: "Sam Cunningham did more for integration in 60 minutes than had been done in 50 years," he said.


In their books, Yaeger, Barra and Rhoden wrestle with the many untruths and half-truths that have come to surround the game. No, Yaeger reports, Cunningham didn't rush for 230 yards, as the Washington Post breathlessly reported in -- pick a year -- 1978, 1983 and 1990.

According to Barra, it's highly unlikely that Bryant brought Cunningham into the Alabama locker room after the game and said, "Gentlemen, this is what a football player looks like."

And, no, the game didn't lead to the integration of the university or the football team. The school had begun accepting black students in the mid-1960s (Gov. George Wallace's theatrics notwithstanding) and Bryant already had recruited black players. In 1970, Jackson was sitting in the Legion Field stands watching USC romp. He wasn't eligible to compete then because the NCAA banned freshmen from playing varsity sports.

Nor did Bryant's actions cause other Southeastern Conference teams to integrate, because they already had.

According to a Times' article published before the 1970 game, 41 black varsity players were on SEC rosters.

So, did the game do more for integration than the legal cases, freedom marches and boycotts led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights advocates starting in the 1950s? No way. Claiborne's statement only belittles the courageous efforts of many heroic individuals.

Did the game improve the lot of African Americans in the South? Yes, in that black athletes now had more opportunity to earn athletic scholarships at SEC and other Southern schools. Many of these players earned college degrees; many of them -- including Jackson -- had successful NFL careers.

But, just as the demise of the Negro leagues destroyed black-owned and black-operated businesses and blocked the ascent of black managers and coaches in the majors, so integration in college sports has not meant equality.

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