In the bad old days of segregation, the good old boys of Alabama used to tell a favorite joke about their favorite legend, Bear Byrant, and his all-white football team.
It seems that one day this black boy shows up at Alabama's football practice and asks for a tryout. Bear Byrant sort of winks at the team and says, sure enough.
The Crimson Tide defense lines up; the black youth is given the ball to run. He bursts through the burly-linemen, stomps a linebacker, eludes the safety and races across the goaline.
"Hey, boys," says Bear Bryant, "look at that goddam Indian run."
Well, the years passed and people changed and, after a fashion, that joke has come true. Today, when Alabama scores on the football field or the basketball court, the crowds are cheering, more often than not, for darkskinned athletes named Ozzie Newsome or Rah Rah Scott of Johnny Davis Nobody pretends these Bama stars are Indians.
Organized sports have long served as a visible upward ladder for blacks, even when star status seemed to promise much more progress than it delivered. In the last decade, particularly in the South, sports played another important role during the turbulent years of desegregation. Games are unifying social events with essential values - winning, following the rules, rewarding talent - that callenge the long-established mores of white supremacy and racial segregation.
Football, by itself, did not change people in Alabama or anywhere else. But it surely made change easier for them.
This year's All-America, Ozzie Newsome, a wide receiver drafted in the first rouind by the NFL's Cleveland Brown, describes the new reality in Alabama sports:
"Bryant doesn't give a damn what color you are or anything like that. He just wants a winner. You go into the cafeteria and the cooks want you to win. If we don't win, it's not the blacks didn't win or the whites didn't win. It's Alabama didn't win and we're all in trouble."
This past year, Bryant had 18 blacks on his squad of 79. Eight of the 22 starters on offense and defense were black. Basketball coach C. M. Newton, who brought class basketball to Alabama by recruiting home-grown black athletes, starts three or sometimes four blacks. His squad of 15 has 10 black players.
What happened here over the last decade is not unique, of course. Across the South sports at the college and high school levels are now thoroughly intergrated - an importlant socializing element in the reduction of racial prejudices, from small-town gymnasiums to the major championships.
The university at Tuscaloosa is special, however. This is the place where Goerge Wallace made his stand in the "schoolhouse door" 15 years ago and said: "Never," Everyone smiled in 1976 when Gov. Wallace kissed the Homecoming Queen. She was a black named Billie Faye Scott.
In the last 10 years, the University of Alabama has changed from the convenient symbol of white defiance to a a genuine model of racial equity, at least in the sports programs under athletic director Paul (Bear) Bryant. Alabama has scrupulously avoided the exploitive outrages that are so common in big-time collegiate sports, in which black youths are recruited with glossy promises, used as university gladiators, for four years, discarded - without diplomas or career prospects.
Since 1970, some of Alabama's black stars have gone on to pro careers - Wilbur Jackson of football's San Francisco 49ers, Leon Douglas fo basketball's Detroit Pistons, Willie Shelby of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals, Newsome to Cleveland, fullback Johnny Davis to Tampa. Some are coaching - Sylvester Croom and Wendell Hudson at their alma mater, John Mitchell at Arkansas.
But this may be more meaningful: nearly all of the blacks on Alabama athletic scholarships, whether they were stars or subs, earned their college degrees and are pursuing careers outside of sports - 23 of 27 so far. And these black athletes get plugged into that valuable network of Bama alumni - the business contacts athletes have always enjoyed - that can lead, if not to fame and fortune, to solid middle-class careers.
Alabama has chanced, so has Bear Bryant, but not his lockerroom magnetism. Bryant has mesmerized a generation of white athletes over his long, winning career and he has the same approximate impact on his black players.
Byron Braggs, a 262-pound freshman lineman from Montgomery, shook his head at the stern-faced legend, his coach. "When Coach Bryant comes into the meeting room," Bragg said reverently, "you could hear a cockroach dying, it's that quiet."
Wilbur Jackson, the first black player signed for Bryant's football team in 1970, remembers the Bryant spiel:
"He'd give the same pregame speech for three years. It never varied except for maybe 15 words, but it worked. He could have had a tape recorder and just moved his lips, for all we knew. Poise and confidence were the two things he talked about . . . but it always worked."
Chumminess has never been part of Byrant's routine. The coach says of Wilbur Jackson: "I remember him walking in here and he hadn't said two words. He played here four years and he hasn't said two more."
But the black players respect Byrant's fairness with them, his toughness, his total domination of the team.
"Byrant has total control," Newsome said. "He put Joe Namath on the bench before a big game and, if he'll do that, Ozzie Newsome isn't going to come down here and raise no hell and Ozzie Newsome knows it."
Not many years ago, black youths growing up in Alabama like Newsome and Jackson could not imagine playing for the legend. They might be recruited by the big-name schools from the West or the Middle West like UCLA or Michigan. They were wooed by the black colleges of the South, Grambling or Jackson State or Alabama State. But more of them thought about going to Auburn or Alabama, the principal shrines where Alabamians worship sports. They watched the Crimison Tide on TV. They heard Bear Byrant say that he was not interested in having any black athletes play for time.
Today, Bryant does not attempt to fudge over that history. Indeed, he tells stories on himself, describing the segregationist past.
"Everybody knows the state of Alabama used to have a terrible name and deserved it," the coach said.
In 1965, he was hoping for No. 1 ranking in the nation, but he knew that the racial factor was hurting Alabama's stature. They would not schedule home-and-home games with any of the Big 10 or West Coast schools which had blacks. Sports writers said they played a soft schedule; sentiment was against them.
The final game against Auburn was televised nationally, so Bryant told a black follower to put on an Alabama robe and stand close to him throughout the game.
"Normally when I get on that field," Bryant said, "I don't want anybody around me. But I knew that TV camera going to be on me."
His ploy didn't work, undefeated Alabama was ranked No. 3.
In the same period, a high school coach from Mobile approached with a hot prospect, a promising black player who might qualify as the first for Bama. "I told him, officially, I want him up here, I'll treat him fairly," Bryant recalled. "I'll handle it as best I can. Unofficially I think it's too soon."
Bryant was worried about heckling and abuse from the stands a black player might have to endure in Mississippi or Georgia or, for that matter, in Alabama. "I was concerned about what might happen right here, when the first black player ran out on the field," he said. "He was my guy. He was my player. But segregration was still in the saddle."
Yet, in a few short years, the long held white resistance receded and virtually evaporated at the university level, a social change which many in Alabama attribute to two powerful forces - the federal courts and the universal desire to win ball games.
Federal judges were forcing the integration of high schools, including their sports programs, a transition which produced a lot of early trubulence, even some minor violence in Alabama. Attendance declined sharply in some cities like Montgomery and Mobile. Scores of black coaches lost their jobs when black schools merged with whites.
But something else happened: when the separate black and white state basketball tournaments were merged into one in 1969, the first state champion was an all-black Birmingham school, Parker High, a long-established power-house in segregated competition, but never recognized by the white citizenry.
Parker's venerable coach, "Cap" Brown, remembers that tournament: "We were told not to give the first power sign. This was the first time and they didn't want any incidents."
Since then, in nine years of intergrated competition, Parker has won the state title three times, was runner-up twice and third once. This year, its star, Eddie Phillips, who is 16 and 6-foot-6 and still growing, was sought by Stanford, UCLA, Vanderbilt and Drake, among many others, but he signed with Alabama.
Thanks to the federal courts, the quality of Alabama's basketball soared: so did attendance. As white fans learned to cheer for black stars at their local high school or the state tournament, it seemed natural that Newton, the new basketball coach at Tuscaloosa, should begin trying to sign these same ball players - instead of losing their talent to out-of-state competition.
Newton is a winner. He turned Alabama into a national contender, a National Invitational entry twice and he did it mainly with Alabama youth. "That's the significant thing, not so much the black-white thing," Newton said. "We have not gone to big cities and raided. That's the most important thing."
Meanwhile, Alabama's first love football, was teaching similar lessons. Football at the black high schools was not impressive, partly because of poor financing, but Bear Bryant's followers were beginning to see black stars from other places.
In the 1970 opening game, the University of Southern California buried Bama with a black fullback named Sam Cunningham. Cunningham gained 230 yards and scored three touchdowns. As Jerry Claiborne, the Maryland coach who was Bryant's protege, has put it, Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes that night than Martin Luther King had accomplished in 20 years.
"I think it opened a few people's eyes," Bryant says.
But, if Alabama's white were ready for integrated teams, it was not clear that the state's black talent was ready to take a chance on them. Both coaches, Bryant and Newton, encountered considerable skepticism on their recruiting forays.
People remembered the past. Ozzie Newsome cried when his friend, Leon Douglas, signed with Bama, convinced that Douglas was ruining the future.
Many of the black athletes, who were bombarded by high pressure recruiting from large and small schools, recall with special awe the same scent - the time when Mama stared down Bear Bryant and asked the hard questions about Alabama.
Ralph Stokes, a high-school all-American from Montgomery's Robert E. Lee High, now an insurance agent with Provident Life, remember it well:
"When Coach Bryant came to recruit me, the first thing my mother addressed him with was this question. She said, "I recall vividly seeing you on television saying you don't want any black boys on your teams and now you say you do. Why are you here now? Why do you want my son?"
Stokes was deeply impressed by Bryant's answer.So was his mother. As Stokes recalls:
"Bryant told her, 'At thime, that was the way I felt. But times have changed and I've matured and changed. I've grown too. My thinking has changed completely and now I don't see any white players or black players anymore - it's just ball players. People are people and they can't be treated by the color of their skin."
Bryant has used variations of that statement, over and over, covincing black parents that their sons would be treated fairly at Alabama. Byrant kept his word, according to the young men who played under him.
Strokes, for instance, never realized the stardom which was expected of him. He suffered injuries, lost valuable playing time and never earned a starting position. He still regards Bear Bryant as a "great man" who gave him a fair shot.
"I was apprehensive about going." Stokes said, "but also the legend of Bear Bryant looms so large over Alabama and you've heard this so many years. The prospect of playing for a legend was a challenge so you figure, what the heck, I'll go see can I fight this road."
Wilbur Jackson, growing up in Ozark, in southeast Alabama, wanted to go to a black school, but his father, Buster Jackson, a retired railroader, decided otherwise. "They wanted Wilbur," Jackson's father explained. "Why would they ask him to go there if they were going to make trouble for him?"
The black atheletes checked things out with a black minister in Tuscaloosa, the Rev. Sylvester Croom, who assured them that Bryant could be trusted. Croom sent his own two sons to the university and one of them is now assistant football coach.
Wilbur Jackson and others encountered a few racial slurs during their playing careers and some white players who were "standoffish." He carried with him his own prejudices about whites. But there was never any trouble.
"Deep down inside," he said, "I thought what it would do to my parents if I didn't act right. I didn't want to embarrass them in any way."
In the early years, the black players did encounter a few foul words around campus, even once or twice in the locker room.
Today, there is a genuine amiability among the athletes of both races who eat and live together at Bryant Hall, the jock dorm. In the early years, the black players clustered together, though Bryant made each of them room with a white player. As the numbers increased, the teammates got beyond self-conscious joking.
Campus social life is restricted for all athletes, but the blacks have found it reasonably free of hassles. Alabame has 2,000 black students now, so there is no shortage of dates. Alabama has two black Homecoming Queens in the last four years and one black as student council president. Byron Braggs went to a springtime beer party with some teammates the other party with all-white fraternity house.
One indicator of social ease is that Alabama is now beginning to attract a few black athletes from up North. Mike Pitts, from Baltimore Polytechnic, was recruited this year. The baseball team has a famous name - Elston Howard Jr., son of the Yankee star, who grew up in Teaneck, N.J.
"The pace is quieter here." Howard said. "It's not dog-eat-dog like it is in New Jersey."
If he doesn't make pro baseball, Howard wants a career in marketing in Atlanta. "Getting a degree here is going to carry more clout in the Southeast," he explained.
He has found he had to adapt to the southern level of manners. "The people here are more foraml with their grown-ups," he explained. "Yes sir. Yes ma'am. They use that for the coaches, too, and I had to get used to that."
When the baseball team played an away game in Mississppi, light-skinned Howard joked about race with his wife teammates: "When we get to that Mississppi line, you-all start calling me Carlos."
Coach Newton encountered a different problem in recruiting basketball talent - a suspicion among the blacks that he would employ a "quota system" to ensure that they did not dominate the game.
"One youngster we were recruiting," Newton said, "chose not to go to Alabama because we had three black starters and he didn't think we would start four."
The youth was wrong. Newton frequently plays five blacks at the same time. The jokes about "token whites" have grown a bit stale.
"It's no big deal," Newton said.
No one can say with any certainty what all this has done for Alabama, besides winning ball games, but Newton and many others in athletics and politics believe that racial integration of sports has been in integral element in erasing old prejudices and hostilities.
Byrant knows that some of the good old boys who were once hardline white supramacists now come out to practice and root for the black players. "I haven't gotten 25 letters on this over the years and five of them were from the same guy, some idiot out there," Bryant said.
Joe L. Reed, of the Alabama Education Association, a black educator who has pushed for racialequality in the schools, believes that "sports has had a tremendous positive impact. They said nover. Now they're cheering.
Coach Newton described the subtle lessons taught by basketball:
"When you see Leon Douglas get tangled up with a white player and they both get up and pat each other, this has got to say something. When you see Paul Ellis jump up an hug Charles Cleveland, one white and one black, when we won the NIT game, I think that says something."
Racial difference has receded dramatically as a divisive issue in Alabama. George Wallace, who used to rally white voters by warning about the "black bloc vote," is not going to run this year; his issue is dead any way. A poll for one Senate candidate compiled a list of the 24 top issues concerning Alabama voters - racial conflicts was not among them. The concerns of black voters was essentially the same as white voters.
But, in many parts of the state, the black communities paid a heavy price for these changes - the loss of leadership when black principals and coaches were phased out or fired by local school boards. Reed said Alabama had 206 blacks principals before integration, only 53 now. Black coaches suffered a similar attrition.
"It does not damage to black kids who recognize that they can run the ball, but they can't coach," he said.
Sporadic racial controversy continues on this level. Reed said a black assistant coach at Anniston was fired because he urged a black student to accept an out-of-state scholarship. In Montgomery, state Rep. Alvin Holmes protested only this spring about the all-white cheerleaders at Robert E. Lee High School. Three black cheerleaders were added.
"There are some people," Holmes complained, "who are just as bitter as they were back in the '60s. When a black gets a job, they got to be a superstar. All the blacks on the University of Alabama team are superstars, all-Americans."
Holmes exaggerates, perhaps, but there is truth in his point. Alabama coaches especially at the outset, were extremely careful in their selection of black athletes - picking "good boys" with strong academic records and family backgrounds, young men who were likely to graduate and unlikely to make trouble. Then attrition rate among white athletes has been considerable, but most of the blacks finish school.
The players know this, but they see it changing. They speculate that, in the years ahead, Bryant will be tested in dealing with the looser variety of players now being recruited.
"We were all goody-goody," said Newsome. "We were all the same in personality, background and attitude. That's the way they wanted it. Now they are recruiting ball players, with all kinds of attitudes and personalities.
"Bryant himself acknowledges, obliquely that the recruiting approach is looser today, that the university is taking more chances on athletes with less than outstanding academic prospect. "We take borderline cases," the coach said, "because we don't want to play against him. We don't know if he'll graduate or not, but if we don't take him, we know we're going to play against him."
The outlook of black athletes is changing, too. Social critics have emphasized that fame in sports can be an enervating obsession for black youth, one which gives them false goals and distracts them from the hard work of academic brillance. Only a handful of the thousands practicing on playground courts and fields will make the pros. Even for them, fame has a short life.
The coming crop of black athletes at Alabama agrees. Bryant now preaches - and they concur - that the odds are against them reaching the pro level,that is it is crucial for them first to win that diploma and plan a career.
It appears that a generational change is underway in which the younger ball players have more savvy, more realistic ideas about their future.
"Being a pro has been the focal point of my life," said Newsome. "It's been my goal. That's the generation thing. The guys coming up now aren't putting everything into football . . . The younger guys are going after their degrees first and its seems that, no matter how good they are, being a football player isn't their primary goal in life."
E.J Junior III, a freshman end from Nashville, chose Alabama over Vanderbilt, Tennessee State and Morehouse. "I had three priorities when it came to picking a school," he said, "academics, athletics and social life . . . I can't play athletics all my life."
Bryon Braggs already plans a career in television, as a technical producer. He's check it out. "If you get hurt and you're not a good student, you got nothing," he said.
Terry Jones, a senior lineman from Sandersville, Ga., was hoping to be drafted by the Redskins, but he didn't lose sleep over his disappointment. "I'll finish schoold this summer and go to work," he said, "just become a family man and lead a simple life again."
At Parker High School in Birmingham, the same attitudes are expressed by high school seniors. Gregory Minard passed up football scholarships at two black colleges in order to got to Alabama as a regular student.
When you graduate from Alabama," he explained, "most businessmen in the state are white and they mostly graduated from either Auburn or Alabama. They will naturally go with the people who went to Alabama too."
Carl Croby passed up basketball scholarship at Birmingham Southern in order to study engineering at the General Motors Institute of Flint, Mich. His friends teased him and he loves basketball, but "I was looking ahead of that," he said.
Eddie Phillips could have gone most anywhere. As his coach said. "He'll grow another three more inches because he's as clean-living boy." Phillips chose the state university at Tuscaloosa after checking it out with other black players. "It suited me academically as well as athletically," he said.
After college, if they work in the classroom as well as on the field, these young man will have access to the possibilitis of alumni contacts or influence or favoritism, whatever you wish to call it. It is an old tradition among alumni fans at state universities to look after the jocks, a benefit denied to black athletes.
Ralph Stokes, who got his start in insurance through a Bama alumnus thinks the network is now open to black athletes, too.
"I'm sort of biased because they did produce for me," Stokes said. "Some of the other athletes weren't the brightest guys you ever saw but they did take the trouble to make sure those guys graduated with decent degrees, not basket-weaving or something like that. Everyone I knew is doing something worthwhile now.
"Basically, they gave us the same shot as white guys and you might say they even gave us a little better shot. I think someone decided, Coach Bryant or someone, that we can't do it for all the white guys, but we got to do it for all the black guys because, if one falls down, it could look so bad."