Last Thursday evening, i attended an event, which produced déja vu for me but in spades. i began this post later that Thursday evening and have been trying to get my head wrapped around it since then.
The event was not as well attended as it should have been. But on the other hand, the few who attended experienced an impactful evening made more so because of the intimacy of just a few.
Sixteen folks were there.
Andrew Maraniss was the speaker. He told of a difficult time in our history and how one man faced it and not only endured but succeeded with very little support. In doing so, this man opened the door to a new and better culture.
The book is Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South. i read the book shortly after it was published in 2014. It told of how Wallace became the first black athlete to play in the Southeastern Conference in 1967. He played for Vanderbilt. The story is almost overwhelming from many angles. Wallace endured severe racial prejudice, threats, and even violence. Those with best intentions did not provide him the support he needed and he had to grit his teeth and make it on his own.
Make it he did. And finally Vanderbilt made amends for the lack of support and Perry took his rightful place in the history books for being a pioneer who led the change for sports in the South and his rightful place of honor at Vanderbilt. Andrew’s two books, Strong Inside (the adult edition mentioned above) and Strong Inside: The True Story of How Perry Wallace Broke College Basketball’s Color Line (young readers edition), provide a vivid portrayal much better than anything i could offer here.
But the Vanderbilt Alumni meeting was an experience.
i was there…i mean i was at the meeting and i was in Nashville when the Perry Wallace story unfolded.
The meeting was unique. Although small in number, the attendees included two young boys, recent graduates, and graduates who attended during Perry’s time there. There were guests, my wife, daughter, and two neighbors included.
The reaction to Andrew describing the events in the book brought a palpable, emotional response. Andrew’s style is informal, casual and fit this event perfectly. Those who had not heard the story believed but it was hard for them to imagine it actually happened. Those who had heard the story and read the book, especially me, were taken back again.
The question and answer period was just about perfect. All of the questions and comments were pertinent and on point. Andrew’s discussion for each question left everyone feeling their questions were answered and their time well spent.
And i was taken back again. i was gone by the time Perry had matriculated. But i was around. i saw him play for Pearl High School, the first time a black school had played a primarily white school (Father Ryan, the winning opponent had several black students and athletes). i saw him standing just out of the foul circle, take one step, catch a teammate’s foul shot, which had hit the back of the rim and bounce up and back to the court, Perry catching it with his right hand at the top of the arc and slamming it back through the net. i heard of his feat at Vanderbilt practice picking quarters off the top of the backboard.
Although i was no longer a student at Vanderbilt, working my way through Middle Tennessee State, i spent a great deal of time in Nashville and was thrilled Wallace and Vanderbilt had broken the color barrier and were succeeding. i had no idea, none whatsoever what Perry was going through.
Perhaps i was just too naive. Looking back on my life my naiveté has been one of my problems throughout my life, even now. i have written here about wondering why folks with darker skin color were at a lower social level, wondered why i didn’t even seen youn black youth, much less play with them. i loved the blues and recognized blues was the propriety of black folks. i listened into the deep of night most nights during high school. As the youth representative for a church committee, i even made a stand for integration.
In college through the good graces of Kent Russ, i met Ralph Boston and remain impressed until this day. i also saw Bob Hayes tie the 100-yard world record. And Cy Fraser and i were frequent visitors to the New Club Baron, a black night club featuring blues and rhythm and blues where we would be two white young men in the middle of a packed house of folks with darker skin, and we would stay into the wee hours.
i just didn’t get it. The protests and the sit-ins had reached a peak. i should have known. i tell myself i should have done more than one measly pronouncement at a church meeting. But i was working two jobs, commuting daily to MTSU, playing softball in a church league, and finding ways to get to my fraternity on the Vandy campus as often as possible. i was interested in getting my degree, going out with women, having fun, and moving on, on and out. That was it. Even with all of the news and the hubbub around the protests, i just didn’t know (as the late Bob Warren, a Commodore teammate of Perry’s said to him years later: “I just didn’t know”).
These kind of thoughts frequently play in my mind. In quiet moments, i try to remember how i missed it, how i didn’t know. i am glad Perry Wallace, “the Jackie Robinson of SEC sports,” did what he did. We needed someone to step forward. i’m proud of Vanderbilt for at least initiating the possibility and even though it was bumbling, giving Perry the avenue to make it happen.
Last Thursday, i went through all of those thoughts one more time: déja vu. As usual, i had no more answers. But i was moved by Andrew Maraniss and was gratified at the response of his audience.
A final note: We have progressed. Athletics is one avenue that opened doors for blacks (i’m using this term for folks of darker skin color than me because someone much more up to date than i told me that was the current preferred politically correct term: i hope i am not offending anyone). Our schools are, at least on paper, integrated. We have made strides through the efforts of many brave people willing to step forward for the first step. i believe both of my daughters and my grandson are color blind. Yet when i look around, i see progress but a long, long way to go before we are truly integrated.
As to how we do that, i feel much like i felt when i watched Vietnamese families escaping a terror, willing to risk the very lives of the families they loved so much by jumping on boats with no idea those boats would even float and heading to the sea with only vague promises and hopes, leaving their homes, their country by the thousands, coming over that horizon south of Vung Tau every day for more than a week. i said to myself then and i say to myself now, “i don’t know what we can do, i don’t know how we got to this point, but we should have done more to prevent this from happening.”
The question now is not what we could have done for Perry then, but what can we do for Perry now?