There were only three places left in the rented blue sedan that was shuttling athletes between the practice field and downtown Modesto, before the California Relays there last Saturday night. The driver was in a hurry, and Stan Wright, the coach from Texas Southern University, motioned to his relay team to get into the car. The four boys hesitated on the curb and shook their heads. "We better wait for the next car," said Lee Smith. "If our relay team can't fit in there together, we'd rather not go right now." So, some other kids climbed into the back seat, and the four sprinters who within 24 hours would be trying to set a world record in the 440-yard relay stood around and waited for a car that had room for all of them.
"It may seem unimportant that they don't want to be separated for a 10-minute ride," Coach Wright said later. "But when you realize the kind of team effort a relay demands, you appreciate their attitude." Smith, a 26-year-old Army veteran who is the unofficial leader of the group, put it more simply: "Over the season, we've learned to love each other."
Smith smiled as he spoke, but his choice of words reflected the unusual and serious mood that surrounded the Texas Southern track men last weekend. With one of the most talented fields of the season assembled for the meet, most of the talk at Modesto was of records and trophies. But the young Negro men from Texas Southern had some other things on their minds—things like sticking close together, and love and, most particularly, hate. They had seen the last emotion at close range only 10 days before, and even the glamour of a big meet could not wipe it out of their thoughts.
Texas Southern almost did not make it to Modesto last week. A number of trackmen—including two of the relay members but not the best one, Jimmy Hines—had been among the 488 people arrested after a riot on the school's Houston campus. At 3:15 on the morning of May 17, they had been yanked from their beds and taken to a police station to be questioned on suspicion of the murder of a policeman during the riot.
"When all the trouble broke out," said Wright, "the police just started rushing through each dorm and grabbing everyone. The athletic dorm happened to be right in their path. Our kids were all asleep and didn't even know what was going on. Still, they were taken out and booked. Now the school is trying to get the arrests wiped off the books, so the kids won't have records." School officials also wondered if they should keep their athletes home for a while, but Wright convinced them that doing so would make matters only worse.
Even if the police records are changed, however, the trackmen's memories of the arrests will be ineradicable. Bobby Evans, a 20-year-old sophomore from Dallas, was awakened that night with a pistol pointed at his forehead. He was rushed through the halls and outside to the front of the student union, where hundreds of kids in pajamas or shorts were being forced to lie in a low-walled concrete patio the students call the pit. Near him he found teammate Arnaldo Bristol. Hines and Smith were absent, because they are married and live in another part of the campus.
"They beat us up a little and then went back and tore up our rooms," Evans said. "Then they took us to jail and held us about 16 hours. Some guys had been pulled out of the shower and just had towels around them, but the cops wouldn't let them go back and put pants on. It was humiliating." At that moment the goals and rewards that had seemed important, and the conference title they had carried back to the campus only four days before, became very insignificant for Evans and Bristol. They were suddenly just two more black kids in a crowd looking up at guns and white cops.
"Would they have wrecked the dorms like that if trouble had started on an all-white campus?" asked Smith. "Did they expect to find funds hidden in the TV picture tubes they smashed?" "Are we still bitter?" added Evans. "You bet we are. These arrests damaged our reputations at home and among people who weren't there to see that we had nothing to do with the riot. And look what it did to the school's reputation."
Someone wondered if a real record or a victory by Hines over his nemesis, Charlie Greene, might get people's minds off Texas Southern's troubles. "To be realistic," said Smith, "I doubt it. This thing is a lot bigger than anything we can do. I wonder if people can ever forget something like this."
But his coach could not help wondering if a big win would go a long way toward calming them all down. "My boys weren't involved in any politics leading up to the trouble," Wright said, "because I believe a dedicated athlete and student hasn't much time for demonstrating. I did tell them that if they wanted to demonstrate they might as well do it by setting sprint records."