Even now he has vivid memories of games at Auburn, where the kindest chant was "Char-coal, char-coal," and of games at Mississippi, where Confederate flags were wielded with malice. Those were the most nightmarish trips for Vanderbilt's Perry Wallace, who in the winter of 1967-68 became the Southeastern Conference's first black varsity basketball player. He tried to block out the jeers, the taunts and the slurs, but sometimes it was impossible. Sometimes his palms would get so sweaty that a pass would slip through his hands, or he would get so jittery that he would have to go to the bench amid hoots of derision.
"Those were scary, scary situations," says Wallace, now an attorney in Washington, D.C., and a law professor at Baltimore University. "Every time we had a road trip, I approached it with the deepest sense of dread."
Today that all seems so long ago and so strange. Indeed, no league in the nation has benefited more from integration—check out all those postseason bowl and NCAA basketball invitations—than the SEC, which fought it the hardest. This season the conference's football teams are 57% black, its basketball teams 64%.
The SEC has been enriched by so many outstanding black athletes—names like Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley leap to mind—that it is difficult to remember that when Wallace made his debut for Vandy, the threat of violence was as real and near as the redneck hecklers sitting just behind the benches. David Sansing, a professor of history at Mississippi, remembers those times when he listens to the current debate on campus over the Alumni Association's request to Ole Miss fans not to wave Confederate flags at athletic events because doing so is an insult to blacks. "When you get down to it," says Sansing, "white Southerners and black Southerners still live in a world apart from each other, but it's better, and athletics has been a part of it. Take this flag thing. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, a white man could literally kill a black person in Mississippi without much fear of reprisal. Now we're talking about being insensitive to the feelings of blacks and scolding people for it. That's a hell of a difference."
The South was a racial battleground all through the 1960s, and its collegiate athletic teams, the most visible symbols of both the region's pride and its prejudice, were caught up in the emotions. Somehow, breaking the color barrier wasn't as difficult in the SEC's neighboring leagues, the Atlantic Coast and Southwest conferences, perhaps because Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the other civil rights leaders chose to fight in the heart of Dixie. The ACC was quietly integrated by Maryland, where the pioneers were football player Darryl Hill in 1963 and basketball player Billy Jones in '66. Nor was there much of a stir in the SWC when Texas Christian's James Cash became its first black basketball player in 1965 and Baylor's John Westbrook became the league's first black football player a year later.
But in Alabama and Mississippi, the core of the Old South, and in the SEC, integration in athletics was accomplished against a backdrop of burning crosses and hooded Klansmen, freedom marches and lunch-counter boycotts, National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets and policemen with snarling attack dogs. "Oh, yeah, I remember the freedom marches," Reggie King, a black basketball star at Alabama in the late 1970s, recalled. "One time the Reverend Martin Luther King's brother was staying in a house a block from me. It was bombed, and the explosion rattled the pictures off the walls of our house. I was scared that night."
Until the SEC was integrated, black athletes in the South had to either leave their home states or attend black schools like Grambling and Florida A&M. The anti-integration feeling was so strong in Mississippi that an edict by the state legislature prohibited its college athletic teams from competing against blacks. The tension wasn't as strong at Kentucky, the league's northernmost member. Nevertheless, after becoming university president in 1963, John Oswald at first had no luck in getting football coach Charlie Bradshaw and basketball coach Adolph Rupp to integrate their teams. The legendary Rupp, winner of four NCAA titles in the 1940s and '50s, was so opposed to the idea that he let such outstanding black prospects as Kentucky natives Wes Unseld, Clem Haskins and Butch Beard get away. But in the spring of '66 Bradshaw finally signed two black Kentuckians, Nat Northington of Louisville and Greg Page of Middlesboro. And in 1969 Rupp signed Tom Payne, a 7'2" center from Louisville.
In those days freshmen weren't eligible for varsity competition, so Page and Northington played only on the freshman team in the fall of '66. Sadly, Page died after suffering a spinal injury during practice before his sophomore year. Northington went on to become the SEC's first black varsity football player, in the fall of 1967. However, he quit the team near the end of the season and transferred to Western Kentucky. Although Northington says his pioneer status had nothing to do with his decision, it was widely assumed that the pressure, along with Page's death, had unnerved him.
The SEC wouldn't have a black letterman in football until 1968, when Lester McClain lettered as a sophomore wide receiver at Tennessee. By the time he had finished his career, in 1970, McClain was one of Tennessee's alltime leading receivers.
Now an insurance executive in Nashville, McClain says he remembers only minor, isolated incidents of ugliness during his playing days. But that's primarily because football players, with their helmets and padding and distance from the crowd, are more insulated than their basketball counterparts. Wallace, by contrast, had to play in such places as Florida's 8,500-seat "Alligator Alley," Alabama's 4,500-seat Foster Auditorium, Mississippi State's 5,000-seat Maroon Gym and Auburn's 2,600-seat Sports Arena.