Sports, Civil Rights & Civility

Jesse Russell, PhD | Assistant Professor of English, University of Mary

In his great epic poem, “The Aeneid,” the Roman poet Virgil depicts a series of athletic events, known as the funeral games, in honor of the great Trojan hero Anchises, the “grandfather” of the Roman people.

Amidst the commemorative foot and boat races and archery tournaments is a parade of Trojan youth in which the young men undertake military maneuvers in front of the adoring eyes of their elders. It is a seemingly strange scene, but it is extremely important to understanding why sports have been so important in the Western tradition. Sports are a deeply tribal phenomenon: We like to see our youth suited up in athletic armor, battling to bring honor to our communities. Politics might be war by other means, but so are sports. Electrifying high school basketball games among American Indian tribes tap into ancient feuds. A soccer team in Europe is often a sign of one’s politics, religion, ethnicity, and even what type of beer he or she likes to drink. Hockey is a way of life for many Canadians, so much so that even American hockey is largely Canadian. Sports in America—like race, religion and beer—have always been complicated, and no sport is as distinctly American and as distinctly complicated as college football.

In Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights, Samuel G. Freedman presents a portrait of the men, women and events leading up to the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic, the Super Bowl of black college football. We hear a moving story of two titans of the collegiate scene: the colossal Eddie Robinson of Grambling College (which became Grambling State University in 1974) and the lesser known but equally indomitable Jake Gaither of Florida A&M University (FAMU). Along with the two coaches, Freedman chronicles the stories of two quarterbacks: Grambling’s James Harris, who ended up having a roller-coaster career in the NFL, and FAMU’s Ken Riley, who went on to play for the Cincinnati Bengals and then coached for the Green Bay Packers in the 1980s. Breaking the Line depicts the struggle of these two teams from historically black colleges to gain recognition on the national stage, in light of the ongoing tragedy and hope of the civil rights movement. Freedman presents a window into a strongly black, definitively Southern and passionately American culture.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) still to this day remain a mystery to those outside their orbit—how many Americans today even know they still exist? U.S. World and News Report lists 77 HBCUs in 2016. It is generally assumed that these schools continue to exist as underfunded institutions from which black students look longingly at the ivy-covered facilities at predominately white state and private schools. Freedman does not deny the tremendous disparity in finances, but more than anything, Freedman reveals a thriving black culture few other Americans are aware of. Grounded in the personalities of football coaches Robinson and Gaither, two men known for their religious devotion, calm demeanor, and puritanical self-control and good manners, what is most surprising about the two primary HBCUs in the book—Florida A&M and Grambling—is the rich, deeply conservative campus culture that thrived at both schools.

Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights Samuel Freedman (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) still to this day remain a mystery to those outside their orbit—how many Americans today even know they still exist?

Freedman reveals a thriving black culture
few other Americans are aware of.

In their early years of coaching, Robinson and Gaither were able to shepherd their players away from risk and into classroom and church—even sending spies to make sure their players were in the pews and at class.

Robinson and Gaither taught their men that self-control and excellence, both on and off the field, would provide a “Double Victory” (a term used by black soldiers in World War II) of acceptance by white Americans through demonstration of athletic excellence. Robinson and Gaither’s practices were notoriously regimented and rigorous, as they trained their athletes like drill sergeants: shaping their boys into men. These coaches led by stoic and Christian example, and until the black community along with the entire country began to come apart in the 1960s, they were successful in doing so.

Following the players and coaches off the playing field, Freedman gives his audience a unique glimpse into the life of HBCUs before, during and after the Civil Rights movement. Despite the controversy over the quality of education in HBCUs, which arose in the late 1960s, Breaking the Line offers a portrait of the attempt to maintain the civilized and dignified academic climate at Florida A&M and Grambling, and tragically how this climate was often degraded by the civil rights movement that sought to improve it.

In one incident, as Grambling’s students are caught up in the protests of the late 1960s, a philosophy major quotes from Socrates’ final speech only to be shut up by a cruder, more radical peer. What is so humorous and significant about this scene is that it shows how a back-country black college could produce such well-educated students. How many 21st-century college students—white or black—can quote from Socrates? How many American philosophy professors can quote Socrates today? It is this gentility and richness of a mid-20th century black community, which shared many of the same admirable values of the white community with whom it clashed, that provides much of the book’s poetry and pathos. Breaking the Line also illustrates how the movement for peaceful integration unintentionally led to the erosion of these shared values.

Throughout the work, Freedman narrates how the civil rights movement mutated into a violent Black Nationalist movement. Most interesting is that Freedman shows how much the angry black youth of the 1960s were fighting against not only the white establishment, but also against the older generation of blacks who wanted a more gradualist approach to reconciling with the white community. Breaking the Line contains hints that forced integration has not produced the result of two co-equal communities with rich and diverse traditions, but rather the destruction of any distinct ethnic community in America. Freedman cites Martin Luther King Jr., who worried that total integration of American public schools would result in the loss of distinctly black communities and schools.

Both football and college have changed in America since 1967.

Plagued by rape and cheating scandals, college football has come under scrutiny in recent years and is increasingly viewed as an obnoxious blight on American campuses. Some still see college football as the great American fall sport and celebration of American masculinity, while others view it as a hysterical cult appropriate to mad arenas of the waning Roman empire. Perhaps worst of all, we have lost the strongly American culture that produced men of honor and tenacity like Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaither.

America has always envisioned itself as a great Roman Republic with, like the Romans, a fiercely tribal streak that often manifests itself in ugly ways. However, in light of the current political and racial crises we now face, our nation’s past injustices toward minority populations are not the most pressing issues du jour. Yes, the vigilante violence and even outright terrorism of white racism in the American South deserves remembrance and repentance. Accordingly, the story of breaking of the NFL’s color barrier makes Freedman’s book important. But Breaking the Line deserves a read not simply because it is a love letter to a great American sport and because of its insights into the civil rights movement. Significantly, the book also paints a vibrant portrait of a black Southern culture that has largely vanished: a robustly patriotic, determined, joyful and confident America that has tragically faded.

Freedman mixes in revealing information about the cultures of the schools, their rivalries with other black colleges, sensitive portraits of the coaches and players, and an evocative description of a racial and political climate that Robinson and Gaither, each working quietly, did so much to alter.

Kirkus Starred Review

As such, perhaps Breaking the Line maps a viable way forward for the nation.

In a recent New York Times article, “A Civil Rights Warrior, Armed With Spoons and Thank-You Notes,” Freedman writes about Mildred Moss, who taught a course called Social Usage at Grambling beginning the early 1960s. “With its rigid propriety, Social Usage could hardly have propounded a more subversive idea,” Freedman reports. “Black people, too, were worthy and capable of etiquette. Every Grambling student-athlete, wearing a coat and tie, using the correct fork, could make an implicit case for racial equality.”

As Rev. Delles Ray Howell, who played football at Grambling and then for the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints, comments in the article: “The approach was to prepare you for whatever situations could come up in life. Those classes gave you knowledge for things outside athletics.” Imagine all colleges and universities preparing students this way today.

Imagine civil rights and civility shaping America’s future together. †

Register for a Free Copy of 360 Review

360 Review magazine, a publication of the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, covers energy, agriculture, finance, culture and faith on the Northern Great Plains. Sign up for a complimentary copy of the latest issue today.

Register for a Free Copy of 360 Review

360 Review magazine, a publication of the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, covers energy, agriculture, finance, culture and faith on the Northern Great Plains. Sign up for a complimentary copy of the latest issue today.

Read the Latest Issue

360 Review presents in-depth inquiry, analysis and reflection on important issues, trends and events happening in and affecting this region; there is a special focus on North Dakota, where we are located.