Integration on the Court: College Basketball in the South

Today, we think nothing of seeing a star African American player or an all-black starting lineup in college basketball. In fact, this is somewhat common in the world of collegiate hoops. What many people fail to comprehend, however, is the amount of effort and time it took to integrate college basketball, especially in the American South, an area dominated by discrimination and prejudice. Often, storied programs refused to change their ways and integrate, and fans continued to protest interference in their segregated teams’ affairs. In the end, it took the audacity of innovative coaches, a changing social attitude, and simply time to alter the face of college basketball in the South.

The first step in integrating collegiate basketball was integrating the school itself. White southern colleges did not even begin to admit black students until the early 1960s, despite the fact that Brown vs. Board of Education had deemed segregated public schools unconstitutional in 1954. Once African Americans were allowed on campus, they were still excluded from athletic teams until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Northern liberals found this segregation ridiculous, and hoped that integrating collegiate sports teams would provide the South and the rest of the country with an example of prosperous cooperation between whites and blacks. Indeed, many colleges outside of the South had opened their athletic teams to African Americans by the mid-1950s, and the National Basketball Association had been integrated in 1950. The rest of the country was taking strides forward, but the South remained stubbornly in its discriminatory past.

This divide between the South and the rest of the country became prominent when it came time for segregated southern teams to play integrated teams from the North. In the first half of the 20th century, southern colleges had simply not scheduled games against teams with black players or had entered into “gentleman’s agreements” with schools with integrated teams. These agreements dictated that the southern college would play a northern school only if that school excluded its African American players from the game. This code of conduct governed play between northern and southern colleges until 1950, by which time most integrated schools refused to agree to a gentleman’s agreement and bar their black players from competition. This resulted in southern colleges either organizing careful scheduling so as not to play any team with an African American player or simply canceling a game against an integrated team, as the University of Tennessee did against Duquesne in 1945.

By the 1950s, most colleges outside of the South had removed barriers preventing African American involvement in athletic programs. In basketball, this resulted in the emergence of a number of African American stars, such as the great Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Bill Russell. The success of the interracial squads of the north put pressure on colleges of the South to integrate their own teams. Any move to recruit black players, however, was halted by vehement opposition on behalf of southern society. Fans and officials alike protested federally mandated desegregation, and officials in Birmingham, Alabama even went so far as to pass laws prohibiting interracial sporting events. This practice was carried out by the state of Louisiana as well, which in 1956 adopted a bill making it illegal for blacks and whites to compete in any athletic event. The attitude of Southern society toward athletic integration was perhaps best summarized by Georgia senator Leon Butts, who in 1957 said interracial competition should be banned because, “when Negroes and whites meet on the athletic fields on a basis of complete equality, it is only natural that this sense of equality carries into the daily living of these people.”

This ideology eventually affected the Mississippi State basketball and denied them any chance of winning the NCAA Championship tournament. After winning the SEC in 1959, 1961, and 1962, and thus securing a bid into the post season tournament, the Bulldogs were forced to decline their invitation to the NCAAs because of their state and school’s policy against interracial competition. By the time Mississippi State won the SEC again in 1963, university officials were determined to give their basketball team a chance in the NCAA tournament, thus challenging the segregationists of the state. This move was not appreciated by some fans, who felt that though athletic achievement was important to the state and to the school, “our southern way of life is infinitely more precious.” As a result, they were granted a temporary injunction preventing the team from leaving the state to play against integrated teams in the north for the postseason. This was eventually dissolved, but Mississippi State officials were so worried about the actions of die-hard segregationists that the team had to secretly sneak out of the state to travel to their game.

Mississippi State went on to play against Loyola University, a team with four black starters who beat the Bulldogs on their way to the championship game. This has since been considered an important step towards achieving racial equality in the South, and it made interracial competition between southern and northern schools politically, if not socially, acceptable. This shifting attitude began to spread throughout the South as schools moved towards fully integrating their own teams. Supported by student protests and campus opinion, the University of Kentucky announced in 1963 that its athletic programs would be open to all students, regardless of race. Despite this, however, the school’s basketball team did not actually become integrated until 1970.

While the SEC remained all-white, southern Texas schools began integrating their own basketball teams. This was first achieved in 1956, when Texas Western College became the first historically white southern university to become integrated with the enrollment of Charles Brown and his nephew, Cecil Brown. This policy was continued in 1961 when the school hired coach Don Haskins, who asserted that he would recruit the best players he could, regardless of race. The University of Louisville would later go on to become the first school to integrate the Upper South in 1964 when three black players, Wade Houston, Stan Smith, and Eddie Whitehead, began playing for the Cardinals.

It would still be Texas Western, however, that would radically change the face of college basketball in the 1966 championship game against the Kentucky Wildcats. This game featured the all black starting lineup of Texas Western against the all white starters of the segregated Kentucky squad. Texas Western would go on to defeat the Wildcats, proving to the South that having the best available talent, regardless of race, was more important to winning than maintaing racial prejudices and a “southern way of life”. Indeed, this game had since been considered the “emancipation proclamation” of southern collegiate basketball.

Shortly after this victory, Perry Wallace was recruited by Vanderbilt University and went on to break the SEC’s color barrier in 1967. Change was slow, however, and the 1969-1970 basketball season saw only 2 African Americans among 120 SEC players. It wasn’t until 1972, when Mississippi State finally signed a black player, that the SEC became a fully integrated athletic conference. Eventually, by 1975, black athletes made up 45 percent of SEC players, and the conference was considered to have achieved relative racial equality.

The road to integration in southern college basketball was both incredibly long (spanning from 1945 until 1972) and incredibly difficult. So why did it change? Contributing factors include: changing student and faculty attitudes, African American presence on campuses, pressure from integrated northern colleges, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the will to win and recruit the best talent available. Eventually, the integrated teams of the South proved to the rest of southern society that blacks and whites could work together toward a common goal, and provided an example of successful interracial cooperation.


Works Cited:

Miller, Patrick B., and David Kenneth Wiggins. Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-century America. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

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