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McCarthy brought Mississippi State to the threshold of basketball's national stage, but Colvard would carry the school over it. Raised on a farm in Ashe County, N.C., near the Virginia line, he had spent his childhood grubbing stumps with black laborers, then gone on to Kentucky's Berea College, whose motto is, God hath made of one blood all nations of men. In 1960, when he drove across the Mississippi line with his family to take the job in Starkville, an IMPEACH EARL WARREN billboard greeted them, a reminder of the state's defiance of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the '54 Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregated public schools.
It wasn't long before Colvard felt that people were trying to sound him out about his views on race. In April 1962 a state legislator phoned him to object that the relatively moderate governor of Tennessee, Buford Ellington, had been invited to speak on campus. When Colvard refused to withdraw the invitation, the legislator demanded to know: "Are you a nigger lover or a nigger hater?" Colvard hung up on him. At the same time, the president did nothing as the athletic department kept the '61 and '62 SEC title teams at home. He wished he could have intervened to send them, but he was still establishing his political base and felt relieved that the issue was never brought before him.
By 1963, however, Colvard was ready to bring himself to the issue. He had watched the events at Ole Miss the previous fall. He knew that desegregation would eventually reach his campus, and he suspected that athletics could be a stalking-horse for change. He briefly considered yielding his office to a Mississippian, but his pastor, the Reverend Robert Walkup, had preached a sermon—"All this talk about the state of Mississippi being sovereign is foolishness!...There is only one type of sovereignty that is absolute sovereignty, and that belongs to God"—and those words emboldened him. He also knew he could count on support close to home. More than half of the school's 5,200 students had signed a petition in favor of the team's going to the NCAAs, and after the Maroons' defeat of Tulane on Feb. 25, several hundred marched on the president's home, chanting, "We want to go, ha!"
Colvard emerged on his front stoop to tell the students he would give the matter careful consideration. He didn't tell them he had already made up his mind. The next day he shared his decision with McCarthy. "I admire your heart," the coach replied.
The president knew the risk he was taking. "Whatever shortcomings [this decision] reveals are failures in capacity or judgment [and] may not be rightly ascribed to failure in desire to do the right thing," his statement read. "As one who has lived in the midst of Mississippians for less than three years, I am cognizant of the hazard of this action and am fully reconciled to the possible consequences of it upon my professional career."
Judging by the letters and telegrams Colvard received, at least two of every three Mississippians supported him. A poll conducted by a Jackson TV station found the number in favor of the team's trip even higher, at 85%. Alumni fell in line, while banks in Starkville promised to make up any shortfall if legislators tried to keep the university from spending state funds to send the team.
Many of those in favor of the Maroons' participation still believed in segregation, but wanted to support the players. "The school and the game belong to the citizens of tomorrow," wrote a man from Kosciusko. "I am strong for separation of the races socially, but let's face this realistically." A woman from Canton said she and her husband "followed the games and [are] proud of the boys.... I'm a segregationist but recognize that our lives have been enriched by the negro." And a letter writer from Jackson said, " Alabama has played in at least two bowl games against teams with Negro players.... yet no public school in Alabama at any level is integrated, and the same cannot be said for Mississippi."
Meanwhile the players, taking cues from their fellow students, began to speak up. "Our going to the NCAA...would make the whole state of Mississippi look less prejudiced," said forward Joe Dan Gold, the captain, who was from Kentucky. Added Mitchell, "I don't see anything morally wrong with playing against Negroes, Indians, Russians or any other race or nationality."
The opposition took a few days to mobilize, but when it did, it came down furiously. "We are being sold out by our own people," fumed Walter Hester, a state legislator. State senator Billy Mitts, a former Mississippi State cheerleader and student body president, called the decision "a low blow to the people of Mississippi." A man in Tupelo wrote the Jackson Daily News: "The world today remembers ancient Troy only because its inhabitants were among the world's greatest 'suckers.' They liked 'trophies' and they got 'one' of the biggest trophies in all history—a hollow wooden horse."
And there were hostile letters and telegrams sent directly to Colvard. A woman from Ashland wrote, "For a coach to insult those white boys by asking them to play against negros [sic] is most disgusting." A doctor in Jackson: "A game is not worth rioting and possible bloodshed." A telegram from Kosciusko: "Shall the temporary false glory of a basketball team be our thirty pieces of silver for our honorable heritage and race integrity?" Someone in Yazoo City sent a brochure for course materials for African languages, urging Colvard to order a supply.