One game helped turn the Tide for Alabama football
Integration didn’t come easily to Alabama, but one game helped push things along in the school’s football program.
08/19/2012 2:23 AM
05/16/2014 7:25 PM
Summer sun shines onto streets and parked cars, bouncing off workers’ hardhats and the shoulders of passing students.
On college campuses, these months are for repair and reflection, but what never changes in places like this is that they inspire thought — pondering how things came to be what they are, and what they’ll look like when future generations stand before them.
On this day, a construction worker walks past Foster Auditorium, passing doors that once allowed in only part of the population. It’s a little before 11 a.m. on a Wednesday on the University of Alabama campus, and on its southern edge, life passes without leaving an impression. Hard to believe on such a serene morning, in such a peaceful place, that this was once a battleground of the Civil Rights Movement.
On June 11, 1963, Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in this auditorium’s doorway, blocking two black students’ entry into a university soon to be desegregated — a move that further divided a state and region already torn apart by race.
This was once a region of sit-ins, fire hoses and marches on cities. It’s a place where Martin Luther King vowed change, Rosa Parks sat strong, and many ordinary Americans vowed that no matter what they faced or how difficult it was to explain others’ actions to their children, in time, yes, they shall overcome.
Foster Auditorium was part of all that once separated this land and its people. But occasionally change is pushed along by something as simple as the idea that, if blacks and whites can play together, maybe they can live together, too.
He watched on television, one face among many, as Wallace stood there. He cheered with his neighbors, that child in Birmingham watching as Vivian Malone and James Hood, this university’s first black students, walked past Wallace and through the Foster Auditorium doorway. The National Guard was there to let them pass and register for classes, on the order of President John F. Kennedy.
Wendell Hudson was 12 years old then, and in his neighborhood and others across the South, this was a victory for the nation’s black people. Segregation was ending in high schools across the country, and gradually even Southern universities were opening their doors to students of color.
“You wanted to be part of witnessing it,” Hudson will say decades later.
But progress came with anxiety. Retribution was common in those days, and Alabama and Mississippi were the nerve centers of the Ku Klux Klan. A day after Malone and Hood crossed the threshold of Foster Auditorium, black civil-rights activist Medgar Evers was fatally shot in the back in the driveway of his Mississippi home. Three months later, four white men detonated a bomb in a Birmingham church basement, killing four black girls.
“Everything that happened,” Hudson says, “I witnessed that firsthand.”
Hudson was a basketball player, and as he grew, he emerged as a future college prospect. Progress was happening, but some goals seemed hopeless. One of those was that, even years after its desegregation, Hudson wouldn’t be welcome on the Crimson Tide’s basketball team.
So it was unusual when Alabama assistant coach Jock Sutherland walked into Hudson’s all-black high school and talked to the young man about a scholarship.
Campus life might not be easy or simple, Sutherland told Hudson, but on head coach C.M. Newton’s team, you will be welcome. In 1969, Hudson became the first black athlete to sign an athletic scholarship to play at Alabama. Another victory. But, as always, he thought about backlash.
“This is going to be kind of interesting,” Hudson recalls, remembering the anxiety he felt as he packed for Tuscaloosa.
He was the only student of color in his dormitory and was one of a handful of blacks on campus. White students shot him looks sometimes, and a few professors used racial slurs to show Hudson that he was unwanted. Only he fired back at them, loudly refuting stereotypes and the declarations offered by those who were teaching history, not making it.
“It was never a thought in my mind that I shouldn’t go to Alabama,” he says. “I mean, I was never taught that I was inferior to anybody.”
Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and Southern California coach John McKay were drinking whiskey one day during an offseason in the late 1960s. McKay went on telling the Bear about this defensive end from Mobile. Yes, the Trojans coach told his friend, he was going to recruit John Mitchell, a talented black prospect, right out of Bryant’s backyard.
Maybe it was the liquor or the fact that Alabama had no history of recruiting black players, but regardless, McKay kept rubbing Bryant’s nose in it.
The coaches already had agreed on a home-and-home series, the first scheduled in 1970 at Birmingham’s Legion Field. The trip to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum would be the following year.
What McKay didn’t realize was that Bryant had started recruiting black players. He had signed Wilbur Jackson, a swift reserve running back, in 1969, but Jackson was hardly noticed on the field. Bryant was waiting for the right time to bring in a program-changing black recruit.
“Coach Bryant didn’t care,” says Pat Dye, who was one of Bryant’s assistant coaches in those days. “Hell, he wanted to win.”
The interesting thing, though, is that it was a loss that helped change the thinking in the heart of segregationist Alabama.
On Sept. 12, 1970, a freshman basketball player named Wendell Hudson rode a bus packed with athletes to Birmingham, taking his seat at Legion Field. He watched as Sam Cunningham, the black USC fullback, torched the all-white Crimson Tide defense for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-21 Trojans win. Hudson didn’t like seeing his school embarrassed, but there was something sweet about a black player showing the holdovers from the Jim Crow South what they were missing. It was a loss for the Crimson Tide, but it represented something different, Hudson says, to the black community.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” he says. “It was a win.”
Later, it was suspected that Bryant brought the Trojans to Birmingham to show locals that it was time to desegregate his team. Was this all it took to be a contender again, five years after Alabama’s most recent national title?
With tensions eased, even if temporarily, Bryant decided to strike. The Bear instructed Dye, his recruiting coordinator, to travel to Mobile and check out that prospect McKay had been talking about. John Mitchell was an Alabama kid and a major talent; Bryant decided that race be damned, Mitchell belonged in Tuscaloosa.
Still, there was resistance.
“I had Alabama people tell me: ‘If you sign him, I ain’t never coming to another game,’ ” Dye recalls. “I said: ‘Suit yourself. But if he’ll put his name on the paper, I’m going to sign him.’ ”
When Mitchell, who had committed to USC, took his recruiting visit to Alabama, it was Hudson who went to dinner with him. Hudson who answered Mitchell’s questions about campus life. Hudson who told him things were tense sometimes, but it was nothing a strong soul couldn’t handle.
“When you think about it,” Hudson says, “who else is going to talk to him?”
Bryant convinced Mitchell to renege on his commitment to play for McKay and instead represent his home state. Mitchell signed with the Tide, and when Alabama traveled the next year to play fifth-ranked USC, Mitchell was in the starting lineup — and he was a force. Bryant’s team won this time, 17-10, and some further trepidation among fans began to ease.
Even those who threatened to end their allegiance decided to relax and just enjoy the show.
“They sat in the same seats they were sitting in before,” Dye says, “or got better ones.”
With the doors finally open to black players, Alabama won three more national championships and claimed Southeastern Conference titles in nine of Bryant’s final 12 seasons in Tuscaloosa.
Bryant saw to it, as basketball coach Newton had with Hudson, that players were made to feel welcome on the playing fields and locker rooms, regardless of race.
“A teammate and a kid that’s out there fighting beside you and playing beside you and playing just as hard as you are,” Dye says, “you can’t help but love him. It doesn’t make any difference what color his skin is.”
Bryant died a dozen years later, but the legacy he left in Tuscaloosa remains strong. Three years ago, when a black running back named Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy, his race was of no more consequence than his shoe size. Alabama also has won two of the last three national championships and had eight players selected in this year’s NFL Draft.
Mitchell, who declined a request to be interviewed for this story, is now a defensive assistant coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bryant’s actions, whether they were premeditated or not, prevented the Tide from falling behind — despite resistance from boosters and even in the statehouse. Some say that game at Legion Field was the turning point; others say the story has been overblown, its significance mythologized.
Hudson says that, if nothing else, that fall Saturday helped to open minds and to ease the stress directed toward young black players.
“If Coach Bryant thought it was OK,” Hudson says, “the state of Alabama thought it was OK.”
A 61-year-old man sits in his office inside Foster Auditorium, talking about the way things used to be and the way they are now. Hudson is now the women’s basketball coach at Alabama, and this auditorium is where his team practices and plays, a few steps from where Wallace once stood.
The significance is not lost on Hudson.
“That,” he says, “is coming a long way.”
Nine years ago, the pioneer and coach participated in the 40th anniversary of Wallace’s “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” along with Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood, the school’s first two black students. They gathered on a plaza now named for Jones and Hood, holding candles during a vigil. Then rain interrupted the tranquility, and without thinking, the group headed toward the door to seek shelter inside the auditorium. Hudson says it was then that he first considered how far progress had taken them, slow as it sometimes comes.
“We’re all going through the same door,” he recalls.
From his office inside the auditorium, Hudson can watch through the window as students pass, along with workers and professors and anyone else who feels like it. If some beliefs seem made of stone, it’s time that best erodes them. The purpose and meaning of this building, and the man in the first-floor office, is proof of that.
“Where I’m sitting right now, and thinking about some of the history,” he says, trailing off.
Then he continues.
“One day I did come in and sit in this office,” Hudson says, “and I thought: ‘Hey, look what has happened here.’”