“It is no accident that the birth of this slogan [Black Power] in the civil rights movement took place in Mississippi — the state symbolizing the most blatant abuse of white power. In Mississippi, the murder of civil rights workers is still a popular pastime. In that state, more than forty Negroes and whites have either been lynched or murdered over the last three years, and not a single man has been punished for these crimes. More than fifty Negro churches have been burned or bombed in Mississippi in the last two years, yet the bombers still walk the streets surrounded by the halo of adoration. This is white power in its most brutal, coldblooded and vicious form.”
Martin Luther King Jr. penned those words in his book “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” It was 1967 — four years, the college basketball world would be surprised to learn this March Madness, after the so-called and much-celebrated Game of Change.
Loyola Chicago, which faces Nevada in a round-of-16 game Thursday, played in that now-storied game in March 1963. Its opponent was Mississippi State.
Loyola featured four, sometimes five, black players in its starting five. Mississippi State was all-white.
The latter was banned by its segregationist state government from playing sporting contests against teams that suited up any black players. So it sneaked out of its racially recalcitrant confines under the cover of darkness to meet Loyola in an opening-round game of the NCAA tournament 55 years ago in Michigan State’s gym.
If you didn’t hear or read about the event last week as Loyola advanced through the 2018 tournament as an underdog, you undoubtedly will get another chance by Thursday’s game. It will be bandied as it has under headlines such as these last week: “The March Madness game that altered history” and “Loyola Chicago’s 1963 NCAA tournament game at MSU was ‘defining moment’ for integration.” It has been lionized in a handful of books, such as “And The Walls Came Tumbling Down,” and documented in a film made by the son of one of Loyola’s black players then. It’s titled “Game of Change.”
But as King pointed out four years after Loyola’s black squad beat Mississippi State’s all-white team, 61-51, nothing changed on the civil rights front in Mississippi or elsewhere in the immediate wake of the game. In June 1963, then-Mississippi NAACP director Medgar Evers was assassinated in his Jackson, Miss., driveway. The next summer, three civil rights workers — James Chaney, a black Mississippian, and Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, white men from the North — were found murdered outside Philadelphia, Miss.
In January 1966, a black civil rights activist, Vernon Dahmer, died of injuries suffered in the firebombing of his Hattiesburg, Miss., home. In summer 1966, James Meredith, the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, was shot on a March Against Fear near Hernando, Miss. Even on the edge of Loyola’s home town of Chicago that summer, King was attacked by a white mob as he marched against de facto segregation in housing, education and employment in the North.
But we in sports are often not in the business of truth-telling so much as we are in mythmaking, particularly when it comes to the role sports has played or does play in social change.
“Sport plays an especially powerful role in shared myths and collective memory about race,” said C. Richard King, a cultural anthropologist at Washington State who has written extensively on sport and culture. “The Game of Change, as a myth, plays a similar sort of role: It points to change, marking a key moment, affirms the goodness of values and associations to come after, and allows us to say something about ourselves as good people beyond or after the ugliness of race and racism. The myth is more important than the game, for it is in the retelling that we give it and ourselves meaning.”
“These stories . . . allow us to celebrate an event and the future without having to deal with the hard past and also without having to acknowledge structural barriers still exist,” said Louis Moore, a Grand Valley State professor and author of “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.”
Not to cast aspersions upon authors, journalists and filmmakers who have championed Loyola vs. Mississippi State 1963, but in the end, they often served to whitewash history rather than preserve it. Such storytelling almost always centralizes white figures as heroes and people of color as beneficiaries of that perceived bravery and benevolence. Branch Rickey with Jackie Robinson. Howard Cosell with Muhammad Ali. White players who dared ally with Colin Kaepernick, which led to a much unnecessary question: Would Kaepernick be better off if white NFL stars stood at his side? As if the struggles of people of color need the validation of others.
“In 2012, the NCAA produced a documentary about the game, and I was one of the ‘talking heads,’ ” Mississippi State professor James Giesen recalled Wednesday. “The triumphant narrative of the overall documentary made me uncomfortable.”
Giesen allowed that the game did leave some positive dent on the school and the state. Students took agency, he noted, to protest at the university president’s residence to let the team play in the NCAA tournament, though that may have been because students thought it was a chance to show that white men were superior to black men. And the university dared buck the state’s segregationist stance, which very well could have damaged its public funding.
“To be clear, this was not an act of heroism on the level even of a single black Mississippian trying to register to vote at the time,” Giesen said.
Giesen said what made him queasy about the documentary was “endless evidence that challenges this notion that the game changed the minds of white Mississippians about race.”
“Indeed, in the 18 months surrounding that game, white Mississippians murdered Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman; they repeatedly bombed Freedom Summer schools and churches; they shot, arrested and harassed [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] volunteers and local African American activists again and again,” Giesen pointed out.
“And perhaps most germane to the Game of Change myth is that the state passed a ‘freedom of choice’ plan as an attempt to put off, yet again, public school integration even after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”
Those are facts that need to get in the way of this feel-good story.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.