West Virginia and Wake Forest recruiters were battling last week over an All-America junior-college basketball player. Trinity University of San Antonio signed a home-town track whiz, and TCU a basketball star from three miles away. Only the piddling matter of grades delayed Miami ( Fla.) from enrolling a high school runner who can do the hundred in 9.6. And Kentucky, the frequent capital of college basketball, was falling all over itself trying to persuade a 6-foot-3 high school All-America named Alfred (Butch) Beard to matriculate at Lexington instead of at the University of Louisville.
This is all quite routine for this time of year, college officials having a fond place in their hearts and their physical education departments for All-Americas and kids who can do 9.6. What is not routine is that every youngster on this list is a Negro, and the list could be considerably expanded. Southern schools have started recruiting southern Negro athletes in earnest, and what was really just a trickle this high school graduation time will be a flood next year. "It could change like zip," Basketball Coach Bones McKinney of Wake Forest says. "In three years Negro basketball players could be as important to the Atlantic Coast Conference as they are now to the Missouri Valley." (The ACC includes such schools as Virginia, Duke, South Carolina and North Carolina, which do not recruit Negroes.)
For decades the 12 schools in the Southeastern Conference have had a gentleman's agreement not to field Negro athletes. Kentucky's pursuit of Beard means that the SEC has a new gentleman's agreement to forget the old one, and thus the last major-conference color bar has quietly fallen. This does not mean that every southern school is out chasing Negro athletes. But the pressure on those that are holding out for sporting segregation is likely to become irresistible as soon as they are regularly whupped by their integrated neighbors.
The process is going to speed up quickly in the Southern Conference after next winter. There will be four Negro sophomores on the West Virginia basketball team—one, Ron Williams, is a potential All-America—and they should help bring the Southern Conference title back to West Virginia. Maryland and Wake Forest will be providing object lessons in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and SMU and TCU in the Southwest. The whole SWC has given up the ghost of segregation. TCU signed the league's lust Negro basketball player, James Cash, last week, but nearly all conference schools had tried to recruit him. Southern Methodist signed the Southwest's first Negro football player, Jerry Levias, the week before.
The consequences of all this will reach far beyond Dixie. No longer can northern recruiters, their carpetbags loaded with grants-in-aid, expect to hop on a big ole Delta jet and come right on back, you hear, with a Walter Bellamy, a Bobby Bell or a Dave Stallworth. In the future, southern Negro youngsters are going to find it easy to stay close to home. Butch Beard never even considered any northern schools. His case is perhaps most significant because the SEC includes those symbolic bulwarks of the way that was, Alabama and Mississippi. These schools are now committed to a rotating SEC football schedule, which means, effectively, a policy of playing all comers, white or black, and this will make it extremely difficult to argue against playing schools with Negroes outside of their league.
Realists may claim that the reason Kentucky was first in the SEC to attempt to recruit a Negro was simply to maintain its status in basketball. But it is also true that the governor of the state, Edward Breathitt, and the president of the university, Dr. John W. Oswald, have long been plumping for Negro athletes, and the university has been integrated since 1949. Integration in athletics, however, has lagged. It is only in the past couple of years that Kentucky has paid even lip service to the idea of recruiting Negroes who could qualify, in the NCAA's lexicon, as "student-athletes." If Butch Beard had gone to Kentucky, he would have been the first Negro student-athlete in the SEC, but he would not have been the first Negro student, and not even the first Negro athlete. That honor belongs to Steve Martin, a freshman baseball player at Tulane, who is almost certain to play on the varsity next year—Tulane's last in the SEC. But Martin is attending Tulane on an academic scholarship, so the SEC is still waiting, really, for its first actual (recruited) Negro athlete.
As Kentucky and Louisville, the only two universities in the state, fought over Beard's services, nearly everyone took sides from the governor on down. There was some irony in the spectacle of the strange bedfellows such a confused struggle can make. Beard's aunt, Mrs. William McCallum, wife of a Chicago minister and a firm civil rights advocate, flew to the scene to advise her nephew. Possibly because she felt Kentucky was a better school academically for Butch, possibly because she would have been proud to see him break the SEC's color line, she soon found herself in the same camp as the longtime lily-white Kentucky athletic department. "Butch," she said, "has the maturity and the gracious manner to make himself acceptable anywhere. He is one of those youngsters, out of a great many others, who has the nature to make an outstanding record. He wouldn't be hard put to find a place at the University of Kentucky. He's going to have his problems racially, but there is no point in making him afraid or putting him on the defensive."
Beard could have been that SEC pioneer had Kentucky—and particularly Coach Adolph Rupp—acted earlier. Not until after Beard had signed a letter of intent to go to Louisville (a fact that he was keeping secret) did Rupp convince him that the school really wanted Negro athletes. This almost made him change his mind. For reasons of his own he had chosen Louisville, but he realized that if he went to Kentucky he would, in a way, be opening up all 12 SEC schools to other Negroes. And there were more mundane factors influencing him, the kind of heartless pressures that have, unfortunately, become part and parcel of big-time recruiting.
In fact, Louisville could not have released Butch had it wanted to; only Missouri Valley Conference Commissioner Norvall Neve had that power, and Neve stood pat in defense of the letter-of-intent principle. "If we don't stick by our guns in this case," he said, "we might as well throw the whole machinery on the scrap heap, because it will simply break down."
There was, too, only conflicting evidence that Beard actively sought the role of the SEC's Jackie Robinson. He is a bright young man, a National Honor Society member and a natural leader. Last week, at his graduation from Breckinridge County High School in Hardinsburg, he was voted the Rotary Club's Citizenship Award by his mostly white schoolmates. Nevertheless, the relentless pressures of recruiting confused him so much that his principal, R. F. Peters, said that Butch "appeared to be almost at the breaking point." His mother became so upset that one day she went to the office of the doctor she works for and stayed there alone (it was his day off) to escape the turmoil surrounding her oldest son. Innuendo and gossip—never substantiated—nearly persuaded Butch that he had done something improper in signing with Louisville. Press conferences were called and broken without explanation. Intrigue split little Hardinsburg and reverberated across the Blue Grass.