It wasn't mere happenstance that Wallace broke the SEC color barrier in basketball. A 6'5" forward, he came from a middle-class family in Nashville, was valedictorian of his high school class of 450 and had the potential to be an impact player as a sophomore. Although he had more than 100 scholarship offers, Wallace chose Vanderbilt because of the chance to make history and because of his parents, who had worked their way up from poverty so that their children could have a better life. "They were getting older and getting ill," says Wallace, "and I knew they would take a lot of pride in seeing one of their children go across town to the big white-folks' school."
What's remarkable is that Wallace performed as well as he did under the circumstances. He survived, he says, by maintaining what he calls a "dual" existence. Confident and poised in public, he brooded and agonized when alone in his dorm room. "Only after I graduated and left Nashville did I realize how much was at stake emotionally and psychologically," Wallace says. "There was so much at risk that I could have gone one way or another, even counting as hard as I fought to come out healthy. When it's over, you have to open up feelings that you had to block out to survive. I could have been consumed by fear and pain, but I fought to overcome that."
Henry Harris, the second black varsity basketball player in the SEC, broke the color barrier at Auburn in the 1969-70 season. Wallace, who was a senior that year, recalls that the presence of Harris meant the Auburn crowd couldn't yell as many racial epithets at him as it had in previous years. "Auburn was a rough, rough place in those days for a black."
Ironically, considering that Governor George Wallace had made his defiant and symbolic "stand in the schoolhouse door" to prevent two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama in 1963 (the "schoolhouse," by the way, was Foster Auditorium, where students registered for classes), the Crimson Tide emerged as the leader of integration in the SEC. In 1968 Alabama hired basketball coach CM. Newton, a member of Rupp's 1951 NCAA championship team at Kentucky, who had been coaching at tiny Transylvania College in Lexington, Ky. At his first meeting with Bear Bryant, who was the Tide's athletic director as well as its football coach, Newton asked if there were any restrictions on recruiting. In other words, could he recruit black players? "All he told me," says Newton, "was that I could go ahead and recruit anybody who could qualify academically and was good enough to help us win." One factor, of course, was that the university's Afro-American Association had a lawsuit pending against the athletic department for not having any blacks on scholarship.
Newton became the first SEC coach to recruit large numbers of blacks. At the end of his first season, he signed Wendell Hudson, the Tide's first black varsity athlete. In Newton's seventh season, 1974-75, Alabama became the first SEC team to have five black starters (Rickey Brown, Charles Cleveland, Leon Douglas, T.R. Dunn and Anthony Murray), all of whom were from Alabama. Crimson Tide basketball flourished as never before. For the five-season period from 1973 through '77, Alabama, which had become a national power, went 114-28 and won the SEC championship three times.
"C.M. probably deserves as much credit as anyone for integrating SEC basketball," says current Tide coach Wimp Sanderson, who was Newton's top assistant during that era. "When C.M. started recruiting blacks, people said at first that Alabama never would start two. Then it was three. Then it was four and five. But when we began to have success with black kids who stayed home, the other schools started recruiting the blacks in their states too."
Although he had given Newton the green light to recruit blacks in basketball, Bryant tested the waters more gingerly in football. He had a black—Wilbur Jackson—on the freshman team in 1970, the same season that Southern Cal came to Birmingham and routed the Tide 42-21 behind two touchdowns by black tailback Sam (Bam) Cunningham. As Jerry Claiborne, then one of Bryant's assistants, later put it, Cunningham's performance had more to do with integrating the SEC than anything. The USC debacle showed Bryant that a team could no longer seriously compete for the national championship without black players. And when the Bear began recruiting more black stars the next season, the rest of the SEC coaches had no choice but to do the same thing.
While Alabama's football program thrived after integration, Mississippi's went downhill. Having averaged almost eight victories a year from 1951 through '71, the Rebels won as many as seven games only once between 1972 and '85. One reason was that the all-white private academies—they began to spring up around the state after federal intervention in 1962 enabled James Meredith to become Ole Miss's first black student—didn't provide the caliber of competition necessary to produce athletes good enough to play in the SEC. But what hurt Mississippi more was that many black athletes boycotted the school because of its refusal to get rid of the Rebels' nickname and its reluctance to discourage fans from waving Confederate flags at games.
"I think our school and our state have done more to correct the injustices of the past than any other state in the nation," says Ole Miss football coach Billy Brewer, who played for the Rebels in the late 1950s. "But we never got any credit for it until recently. Only when the Chucky Mullins tragedy happened did the national news media come in and see for themselves what Mississippi is really all about."
Mullins was the black defensive back who was paralyzed below the neck after making a tackle against Vanderbilt in 1989. His plight inspired such an outpouring of love and support from blacks and whites alike that it turned into a public relations triumph for the state. Mullins died last spring, but his legacy might be that black athletes will be more willing to give Ole Miss the benefit of the doubt.