The score that night was Vanderbilt 90, Mississippi 72. Although the racist insults and threats of violence didn’t appear in the next day’s sports section, Perry Wallace, now an American University law professor, can’t forget that 1968 basketball game in Oxford, Miss. It wasn’t the first time he had withstood this kind of treatment, but it was one of the worst.
In Andrew Maraniss’s thorough and engaging biography “Strong Inside,” Wallace recalls people in the crowd screaming, “We’ll lynch you, boy!”
Shortly before halftime came a blow “so fast that no one knows who threw the elbow,” Maraniss writes. It drew blood, to the delight of some of the spectators. When halftime ended, Wallace was left alone in the locker room with a bag of ice and a swollen eye. He was “shaken not just by the physical blow but by the relentless taunting. . . . He could hear the Ole Miss crowd react when his teammates returned to the court without him: “Did the nigger go home? Where’s the nigger? Did he quit?”
Wallace, who had become the first black player in the Southeastern Conference two years earlier, returned to the game and helped Vanderbilt win, but no one from his team accompanied him back to the court. “He understood more clearly than ever that his journey as a pioneer was one that he would be making alone.”
Maraniss’s biography is a long-overdue tribute to this little-known player. Although Wallace was not the first black athlete to play on a major college basketball team — among his many predecessors was Jackie Robinson of UCLA — his experience demonstrates the difficulties faced by black athletes, even as the civil rights movement was unfolding. Drawing on interviews with Wallace, his former teammates and others, Maraniss offers a portrait of an ugly time: “He was spit on and pelted with Cokes, ice and coins. At LSU, some Vanderbilt players claimed, a dagger was thrown on the court in Wallace’s direction. . . . In Knoxville, teammates remember, fans dangled a noose near the Vanderbilt bench.”
Wallace, who as a 12-year-old had watched sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters, wondered, “Why the hell didn’t anyone ever say anything — or do anything — about the nightmarish things going on?” Still, Maraniss explains, Wallace “has always gone to great lengths to say that he holds no hard feelings toward his teammates.” He acknowledges that they were “decent kids” who had no experience as trailblazers. As a freshman, Wallace told a sportswriter, “Honestly, I don’t have the pioneering spirit. I’m not mature enough to be a Martin Luther King or a James Meredith. I’ve got my hands full being a player-student without leading any civil rights movement.”
Maraniss, a Vanderbilt alum and former associate director of media relations at the school’s athletic department, doesn’t offer a pretty picture of the administrators and coaches of his school in the 1960s. They considered themselves progressive, at least by Southern standards, but they had much to learn about the complications of racial divides and the lonely burdens borne by Wallace and a handful of other black students.
In 1970, Wallace left Vanderbilt basketball to the roaring cheers of a hometown crowd, ending his final game with an illegal dunk that the referees let stand. The basket, Maraniss writes, “had been Wallace’s ‘freedom song,’ a provocative, forceful, and in its own way violent statement.” The next day, Wallace met with a reporter from the Tennessean and gave an interview that would “make him persona non grata for decades to come.”
Wallace and Vanderbilt have since made amends, and in 2004 the school retired his jersey. Wallace was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1970 but ended up playing only one minor-league season in Delaware before launching an impressive career that included working as an aide to then-D.C. Mayor Walter E. Washington and as a trial lawyer for the Justice Department before teaching at American University.
In a poignant kind of epilogue, Maraniss (whose father, David Maraniss, is an associate editor at The Washington Post) notes that Wallace and his wife, Karen Smyley Wallace, a Howard University professor, adopted a daughter who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. The taunts she received from some of her classmates reminded Wallace of his own experience. Wallace’s life “turned back upon itself,” Maraniss writes. “All that he had experienced as a child growing up in a segregated society, all the suffering as a pioneer . . . made him the ideal adoptive father for this little girl.”
Minzesheimer is a freelance reviewer based in Ossining, N.Y.
Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South
By Andrew Maraniss
467 pp. $35