Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is the author of “Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football that Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.”
On the last day of January, much of the United States marked the centennial of the birth of Jackie Robinson, the man who integrated pro baseball as part of a lifetime of civil rights activism. Robinson’s centennial is being celebrated with everything from a museum exhibit to a jazz concert to a banquet with more than a thousand guests. Some modern players will wear the No. 42, Robinson’s jersey number with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as tribute.
But there is another Robinson centennial deserving of comparable attention. This one belongs to Eddie Robinson, the legendary football coach at Grambling State University, a historically black college in northern Louisiana. This signature day falls on Feb. 13, almost exactly the midpoint of Black History Month. Although Robinson’s family and players are holding events in Grambling and Atlanta, his legacy should be known nationally.
The two Robinsons complement one another. Jackie was a child of the Great Migration, Eddie of the Deep South. Jackie relied on white allies, most prominently Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, to help him break the sport’s color barrier. Eddie built his reputation and exerted his influence in the world of historically black colleges and universities.
Each Robinson connected to a different current within the broad stream of African American history. Jackie fit among the integrationists, the Frederick Douglasses and Martin Luther Kings, who built coalitions alongside idealistic whites. Eddie is part of a tradition of black self-determination that ran from Booker T. Washington through Malcolm X, committed to social change through black institutions.
A product of the segregated South, Eddie Robinson grew up in a single-parent home in Baton Rouge, working after-school jobs to support his family and seeing in all-black McKinley High School’s football team a vision of purpose and dignity. His career as a quarterback continued on at nearby Leland College.
Still, under the iron rule of segregation, Robinson’s football dreams seemed destined to end there. He was working in a feed mill for 25 cents an hour when word reached him in June 1941 that a tiny black college 200 miles away was looking for a football coach.
When Robinson made the journey to Grambling, La., later that summer, he found two overarching challenges. Just one year earlier, the university’s white overseers in the state government had only begrudgingly allowed it to offer a full four-year curriculum, and its facilities for sports or anything else were threadbare. And as a black community in the most racially hostile part of the state, Grambling was still reeling from the effects of a ghastly public lynching three years earlier in the neighboring, mostly-white town of Ruston.
Yet Grambling’s young president, Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, had the improbable ambition to put his little college on the map — in part, because of the excellence of its football team. That was where Eddie Robinson came in.
In 1942, Robinson’s second year as head coach, his team went unbeaten without allowing a single point. That dominant season set the tone for Robinson’s entire career. Over 55 seasons, he won 408 games, becoming the winningest major-college coach in history until being surpassed in 2011 by Penn State’s Joe Paterno.
Of greater historical importance, Robinson used football excellence as leverage to push for racial equality. One of his earlier stars, running back Paul “Tank” Younger, was the first player from a predominantly black college to make the National Football League, when he joined the Los Angeles Rams in 1949. He went on to serve as the league’s first African American team executive.
Quarterback James “Shack” Harris had an illustrious career under Robinson at Grambling, then won the starting job for the Buffalo Bills as a rookie in 1969. Twice during the 1970s with the Rams, Harris brought his team within one game of the Super Bowl.
Finally, a player who enrolled at Grambling because of Harris and Robinson, Doug Williams, later became the first black quarterback to be chosen in the first round of the NFL draft, when he was selected by Tampa Bay in 1978. Ten years later, in 1988, he led Washington to a Super Bowl title, earning most-valuable player honors with four touchdown passes.
The cumulative effect of Robinson’s career at Grambling was twofold. Pro football teams, especially from the upstart American Football League in the 1960s, began to avidly scout and draft players from historically black colleges. The all-white college powerhouses of the South — which had kept their football teams segregated for as much as a decade longer than their student bodies — began to recruit African American players.
By 1969, Robinson could watch with pride as an all-black Florida A&M team beat an almost entirely white University of Tampa team, in front of a racially mixed crowd — a scene that had been unprecedented in the South. “We’re at the place where we can do anything we want these days,” Robinson told a newspaper reporter the day of the game. “There are still rednecks who’d object, but there are enough people who are concerned about seeing good football now to make it possible for us, too. They know we have to live together now.”