In the South, college football is a way of life. Unfortunately, in the latter part of the twentieth century, so was racism.
Teams across the country started recruiting African-American players in the early 1960’s. In the North and West, rosters were stock-full of athletes from different races and backgrounds. While this was a huge step towards desegregation of college sports, not everyone was ready to take the leap.
“Football and segregation were parallel manias in Alabama in the 1960’s…they were so imbedded in the idea of segregation, they couldn’t find a way out of it except through football,” civil rights activist Taylor Branch said.
The University of Alabama was seen as an epicenter for racial divide for most of the twentieth century. It wasn’t until 1963 when George Wallace famously “stood in the schoolhouse door”, that the University started warming up to the idea of African-Americans attending classes. Unfortunately, the sentiment didn’t spread to the football field until 1970.
Legendary Crimson Tide football coach, Bear Bryant, had experience coaching an integrated team in Maryland prior to arriving at Tuscaloosa. As a prominent figure in the world of college football, it was no surprise that he made a lasting impact on his athletes and the campus community. The impact he had on the Civil Right movement, however, was something no one saw coming. Well, no one except the man himself.
Coach Bryant helped put into motion a game between the all-white Tide and a USC team that featured African-American starters that dominated the field. The game was to be held in Tuscaloosa, in a city known for white supremacy and racial injustice.
USC trounced Alabama in the game at Tuscaloosa, with a final score of 42-21. Samuel Cunningham, the Trojan’s star running back, racked up 135 and two touchdowns in the first quarter alone. The talent and competitive spirit of Cunningham and his African-African teammates was undeniable – even to the Crimson Tide fans.
Alabama assistant coach, Jerry Claiborne said of the game, “Cunningham did more for integration in 60 minutes than had been done in 50 years.” It was a bold statement, but proved hard to argue against.
The very next year, Bear Bryant recruited Alabama’s first African-American college football player. While the desegregation of SEC football cannot be entirely attributed to the 1970 showdown between USC and Alabama, a strong case can be made for its irrefutable contribution to the Civil Rights movement.