In his pleasant office, short, bald-headed George McCarty sits under a wreath of his own cigar smoke and talks with pride about the "nigger" athletes who have starred for the school. Occasionally he says "nigra." He seldom uses the word Negro (pronounced knee-grow), although sometimes he seems to try. "It's a habit that you don't change overnight," he explains.
Says Boh Wallace, the end who is featured in Tom Lea's oil painting, "When I go into the athletic office, McCarty says 'Negro,' but when you overhear him talking to somebody else it's always 'nigger' or 'nigra.' Jim Bowden's the same way, and so are some of the others. They can pronounce Negro if they want to. They can pronounce it. But I think it seems like such a little thing to them. The trouble with them is they're not thinking of the Negro and how he feels. Wouldn't you suppose that if there was one word these guys that live off Negroes would get rid of, one single word in the whole vocabulary, it would be nigger?"
David (Big Daddy) Lattin, who played on the Miners' national championship team in 1966, says the problem is not a new one. "We had a meeting of the Negroes on the squad when I was a freshman, and that must have been 1963, and we decided to talk to McCarty about a few things. We said to him, 'Listen, man, either you get yourself together and learn how to pronounce that word, or...!' "
McCarty remembers the incident. "They asked me about my enunciation of the word and I told them I do not do this intentionally. I told them that inopportunely I might say it that way, but I didn't mean it that way, that it was no reflection on their race or their characters and that I would try to change. But I couldn't seem to get out of the habit—I was born in the South, maybe that's what caused it. So they suggested that I say 'colored.' I tried that, too."
For George McCarty the problem cannot seem a very significant one, and he certainly has no conception of how important it is to the players. He waxes enthusiastic about the exploits of his black athletes and continually reminds the listener that under his direction Texas Western fielded the first integrated team in Texas. Considering the racial attitudes of the state of Texas at the time (the proud University of Texas still has not fielded a single Negro varsity football player), McCarty has good reason to cite this fact. He is under the impression that the Negroes at UTEP think the world of him, and he can see why. To some he may be vaguely reminiscent of the apocryphal Southern Senator who wrote a book about the greatness of the black race and titled it: "Niggers I Have Known."
Indeed, the establishment of the University of Texas at El Paso seems to share McCarty's attitude. Most of the school's administrators and teachers see themselves in the avant-garde in Negro-white relations. Dr. Ray speaks of the national reputations the school has built for its black athletes. Dean of Students Jimmy Walker tells of the special consideration given to the problems of the Negroes on the campus. He is not insincere, nor is Dr. Ray, nor, for that matter, are McCarty or Jim Bowden. These are not evil men. They may admit, as does Dr. Ray, that it is difficult to disentangle oneself from the prejudices of one's childhood, but they feel that they are making genuine headway.
"They just don't understand," says Willie Cager, one of the basketball team's co-captains, shaking his head sadly. "Prejudice is prejudice. Either you've got it or you ain't. They got it."
"A single drop of prejudice poisons a man," said Harry Edwards in a recent speech on the UTEP campus. "A Negro who encounters a single act of discrimination seals off his mind."
Willie Worsley, the other basketball captain, keeps a Countee Cullen poem handy to make the point:
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.