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Alexander Wolff
March 10, 2003
Forty years ago a courageous college president defied a court order barring Mississippi State from integrated competition and sent his team to face black players in the NCAA tournament
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March 10, 2003

Ghosts Of Mississippi

Forty years ago a courageous college president defied a court order barring Mississippi State from integrated competition and sent his team to face black players in the NCAA tournament

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Over time the bouncing ball and my own footfalls had worn away the grass, so that the ground around the goal was spare and hard and useful.

This is ultimately a story of how useful a basketball court can be. It does not, however, begin on a court, but over one, in the rafters of Humphrey Coliseum on the campus of Mississippi State in Starkville. From his regular seat in the Hump, Bailey Howell will sometimes lift his eyes from the floor, up to where banners testify to how his alma mater once interrupted Kentucky's basketball dominance in the Southeastern Conference. The Maroons, as Mississippi State fans then called their team, won four SEC titles in five years, beginning with the 1958-59 group that Howell himself led as a senior. � But there's a fifth banner that hangs near those four. It reads NCAA TOURNAMENT 1963 and seems odd in the company of SEC CHAMPIONS 1963. Taken together the two seem to signify a distinction without a difference, for an SEC title has always guaranteed a spot in the NCAAs. But then no NCAA tournament banner hangs for the '62 SEC champions, or the '61 champs, either, or for the '59 Maroons. There's an explanation for their absence, a story that's painful for Howell to recall.

He had to repeat it often in 1996, when Mississippi State suddenly found itself in the Final Four, and young people, especially, would approach the school's lone basketball Hall of Famer to ask: How'd you do in the NCAAs, Mr. Howell?

"We didn't go," he'd say, and when they asked why not, he'd tell them the tale.

In December 1956, during Howell's sophomore season, the Maroons had beaten Denver in the opening round of a holiday tournament in Evansville, Ind. When word got back to Starkville that the Pioneers had fielded two black players and that the University of Evansville, which the Maroons were set to play for the title, would suit one up, school president Ben Hilbun and athletic director C.R. (Dudy) Noble summoned their all-white team home. Only a year before, the football team from Jones County (Miss.) Junior College had defied popular opposition to play integrated Compton ( Calif.) Junior College in the Junior Rose Bowl in Pasadena. But Mississippi's junior colleges answered to the state Department of Education, not the rearguard Board of Trustees for State Institutions of Higher Learning, which was packed with appointees of a long line of segregationist governors.

Several days after Howell and his teammates returned from Evansville, a rancher who lived outside Natchez, Miss., wrote Hilbun to congratulate him for striking a blow against integration, or as he called it, "deterioration and degeneration that has been furthered by cheap politicians, communists and other selfish groups."

"I believe in what the people of the state stand for," the president wrote back. "I will not, in my official actions, deviate from long-established policies and cherished traditions."

Two seasons later, in March 1959, the players hoped the school might ignore the policy that Mississippians widely accepted as unwritten law and let the Maroons build on their SEC title. Instead, second-place Kentucky represented the conference in the NCAAs. "It was a bitter disappointment," Howell says today. "But back then you didn't make waves. You accepted authority and went about your business." With members of the state's white power structure pledged to defend racial segregation against all comers, no trifling tournament was going to prod the team onto a court with Negroes.

"If they said, 'You're not going,' we said, 'Yessir' and went home," says W.D. (Red) Stroud, a guard who arrived in Starkville in the fall of 1959. "If they said, 'You're going,' we said, 'Yessir,' and went. It was like growing up with Daddy. Daddy's got everything under control. In '61 and '62 [when the Maroons were again conference champs], we didn't give not going a second thought. When the SEC season ended, we turned in our shirts."

So matters stood in February 1963, late in Stroud's senior season. Five months earlier, two people had been shot and killed amid a cloud of tear gas and gunsmoke in Oxford when federal marshals, who were sent there to enforce the right of a black man, James Meredith, to enroll at the University of Mississippi, clashed with segregationist demonstrators. More than 30 Mississippi State students had taken pail in the segregationist riot at Ole Miss, and 15 were arrested. But now thousands of students, and pockets of influential alumni, began to urge Dean W. Colvard, who in 1960 had replaced Hilbun as president, to send the team to the NCAAs if the Maroons went on to win their third straight SEC title, which they seemed poised to do.

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