Race, Sports, and a Doomed Civilization

I just watched ESPN’s Ghosts of Ole Miss about the University of Mississippi in 1962, a year when they had a great football team and the campus rioted in an unsuccessful attempt to stop integration.

“Mississippi in the fall of 1962,” the narrator says, “is a doomed civilization at its peak.”

If such rhetoric sounds overblown, look at this Sports Illustrated cover. What country is that?

The narrator is ESPN’s Wright Thompson, a Mississippi native too young to remember 1962, but embedded in the white culture that has tried to forget it, minimize it, or whitewash it. His article in ESPN: the Magazine inspired the film, which beautifully walks the line between shame and nostalgia. He never loses sight of the ugliness of racism, but also does his best to make comprehensible the white-supremacist Ole Miss of 1962.

One hundred and one years earlier, all but four students at Ole Miss dropped out of school to form Company A of the 11th Mississippi Infantry. The University Greys. On July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg, the unit rose from safety and made a futile rush from Seminary Ridge. Everyone was killed or injured, and history named their suicide mission Pickett’s Charge. The school’s sports teams would be called Rebels to honor their sacrifice. The young men and women in the stands today are just three generations removed from those soldiers.

When the governor won’t negotiate James Meredith’s admission to Ole Miss, President Kennedy sends U.S. marshals to take over the Lyceum, the building at the center of campus where students are registered. The students riot, rowdies join in from far and wide, people are killed, and the marshals can’t contain it. So the 82nd Airborne (“Union troops”) has to finish what Thompson describes as the last battle of the Civil War. (The riot was covered, coincidentally, by a very young Dan Rather.)

Meanwhile, there’s a football team having the only undefeated season in Ole Miss history. When Meredith wants to be an ordinary student and go to a game, the decision goes all the way up to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy: No. The federal government isn’t willing to commit enough resources to keep him safe there.

Thompson pulls a timeless, universal theme out of his subject: If you can’t deal with the bad things in the past, the good things — like the 1962 Rebels — get lost too. And he makes personal the process of sorting the past’s relics, culling what is too ugly to be preserved from what is too beautiful to lose. The stars-and-bars, he concludes, has to go — both at Ole Miss and as the state flag. Colonel Reb as mascot — he’s out too. But what about the Rebel name and Pickett’s Charge?

And “Dixie”, which can still make Thompson cry when they play it slow. Can he keep “Dixie”?

GoOM reminded me of several other articles and books that examine the intersection of race and sports.

Blindsided By History — A 2007 Sports Illustrated article on the 50th anniversary of another undefeated football team whose achievement was overshadowed by a shameful racial controversy: the 1957 Central High Tigers of Little Rock, Arkansas. They didn’t repeat in 1958 because Governor Faubus closed the school to prevent a second year of integration.

Thornridge: the perfect season in black and white by Scott Lynn. This is the other side of the race/sports coin: How one of the greatest basketball teams in Illinois high school history helped a white suburb accept integration. (This was Quinn Buckner’s team. I was there when they beat my high school in the state finals.)

If Only You Were White: the life of Leroy Satchell Paige by Donald Spivey. Paige was the greatest player of the late Negro Leagues, and stayed good long enough to follow Jackie Robinson into the majors in his 40s. Spivey not only makes Jim Crow real for a generation that didn’t live through it, but captures the compromises successful blacks had to make. Paige could be proud and “uppity”, but he could also play to the clown/minstrel stereotype when he needed white acceptance.

Some of the issues around integrating the majors (which killed the Negro Leagues) have been forgotten. For example, the Negro Leagues provided jobs for hundreds of black athletes and opportunities for black promoters. The majors accepted a comparative handful of black players, and no owners, managers, or executives for a long, long time. Paige wanted something more like a merger, in which two or three of the best Negro League teams would be admitted to the majors intact. But that was too much to ask for in 1947.

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  • Lou Doench  On November 19, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Love this piece! Might I recommend Joe Posnanski’s “The Soul of Baseball” for a great look at baseball in the time of the negro leagues


  • By Thoughts and Actions « The Weekly Sift on November 19, 2012 at 11:24 am

    […] If you missed ESPN’s “Ghosts of Ole Miss”, you can still catch it on NetFlix. It inspired me to write Race, Sports, and a Doomed Civilization. […]

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