|The Decline of Birmingham is correlated to the moment Bear Bryant's University of Alabama football team integrated|
College football in Alabama is a religious experience, one with rituals, a liturgy, and a deity in a hound’s-tooth hat. “The definition of an atheist in Alabama,” longtime University of Georgia coach Wally Butts once said, “is someone who doesn’t believe in Bear Bryant.”
By not just winning but dominated the national football scene through the 1960s with a monochromatic team, Bryant was (intentionally or not) fueling the segregationist cause. In [U.W. Clemon – a Black lawyer who was chosen to defend a lawsuit filed by the University of Alabama’s Afro-American Association against the school for its failure to recruit Black athletes for the sports team] Clemon’s words: “he proved that Alabama could have a nationally ranked team- a series of them – without any blacks on them. And so in a way, he kind of proved the legitimacy of segregation, that you didn’t need racially diverse teams in order to have a national stature.”
The 1966 Alabama Crimson Tide was not just outvoted. It was robbed, the victim of the greatest injustice in the history of the national championship selection process. In the history of college football, no other team has ever won back-to-back national championships, finished undefeated and untied in the third year, and been denied the title.
Believing the racial situation cost him the title, Bryant took the offensive and announced the Crimson Tide was trying to schedule regular season games against integrate, non-Southern programs – a small step, but one loaded with symbolism and significance.
“OK, you can put another star in the Flag.
“On a warm and sultry night when you could hear train whistles hooting through the piney woods half a county away, the state of Alabama joined the Union. They ratified the Constitution, signed the Bill of Rights. They have struck the Star and Bars. They now hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal in the eyes of the creator.
“Our newest state took the field against a mixed bag of hostile black and white American citizens without police dogs, tear gas rubber hoses or fire hoses. They struggled without the aid of their formidable ally, Jim Crow.
“Bigotry wasn’t suited up for a change. Prejudice got cut from the squad. Will you all please stand and welcome the sovereign state of Alabama to the United States of America?”
[Turning of the Tide: How One Game Changed the South, by Don Yeager with Sam Cunningham and John Papadakis, p. 151-152]Cut the crud about supremacy. There ain’t no Santa Claus, either. Get out of our way. We’re trying to build a country, to form a democracy.
But why cavil? It was less a defeat for Alabama than a victory for America. Birmingham will never be the same. And brother, it’s a good thing.
Bama’s success in the 1970s was not a result simply of integration, of course. Other changes included Bryant’s gutsy decision to “sink or swim” with the wishbone offense; the shift from one-platoon to two-platoon football (which occurred in the mid-1960s but had a gradual effect on the game into the early 1970s); the corresponding liberalization of substitution rules, which allowed him to develop a system in which he played three and sometimes four complete units, which accentuated his strengths; and the abandonment of his “quick little boys” strategy in favor of using behemoths to take advantage of new blocking rules.[Coach: The Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant, by Keith Dunnavant, p. 262-263]
The trouble seems to occur when you have blacks who aren’t playing, because they’ll have fifty thousand people telling them they’re better than the white boy who’s ahead of hem. You’re not going to be right all the time. I’ll tell you how it goes. I had a white boy in St. Louis, a hot prospect I got, tell me that he heard from one of my players that I favored blacks over whites, that if it was close the blacks would get it. Well, I won’t dignify that kind of remark.[Bear, by Bear Bryant with John Underwood,p.305]
There was another factor we blacks on the Auburn team were aware of. Although Auburn had been the first to sign a black athlete in the state, Alabama had jumped way out front in the number of blacks athletes on their campus. Alabama had three times the number of blacks on their football team than we did. They probably had ten times as many black students. Black athletes filled the skill positions on Alabama’s roster. On both offense and defense, their players were much faster than their counterparts on our team.[Walk-On: My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University, p. 188: 1973 Iron Bowl won by Alabama 35-0, largely a revenge game for the Tide after being shocked by Auburn 17-16 in 1972]
The game would be a “three black game.” We would need all the speed we could get. The trouble was our speed was on offense. We had good athletes on defense, but could we stop the fast Alabama halfbacks from getting around the corner on us? Since James’ signing in 1969, Alabama had raced past Auburn in the quest to sign black athletes. There were at least a dozen black football players on the Alabama squad.[Walk-On: My Reluctant Journey to Integration at Auburn University, p. 230. Auburn played three black players on offense and started an all-white defense in the 1974 Iron Bowl against Alabama. The Tide would win a hard-fought 17-13 victory.
The city had long possessed a reputation as one of the most rigidly segregated cities in the South, and the obdurate resistance and violence that Birmingham’s whites directed at any manifestation of black demands for equality had led some to label the city as “Bombingham.” Birmingham police commissioner Eugene T. “Bull” Connor’s vow to “keep the niggers in their place,” and his nationally televised implementation of that vow by the use of police dogs, fire hoses, and cattle prods against the Martin Luther King Jr.-led demonstrations against the segregation in the city, had been a major factor in prompting President Kennedy to propose in 1963 the legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Indeed, in a meeting with civil rights leaders following his proposal of civil rights legislation, Kennedy had joke, “I don’t think you should all be totally harsh on Bull Connor. After all he has done more for civil rights than almost anyone else.”
Another civil rights leader reported the president as saying, “But for Birmingham, we would not be here today.”
As recently as the 1950s, Atlanta and Birmingham grappled for the title of economic and cultural “capital” of the Southeast. They had almost identical populations of about 350,000. They also shared something else in common- a dislike for each other.
Atlanta and its leaders, notably Mayor William B. Hartsfield, pushed for economic expansion in the 1950s – and grudgingly tolerated social change in the 1960s.
By contrast, Birmingham was symbolized by “stand patism” economically and by Eugene (Bull) Connor, the city’s police commissioner, on the front lines against desegregation. It was Connor who brought worldwide attention to Birmingham in 1963 by unleashing police dogs and fire hoses against demonstrating blacks. Ultimately, Alabama’s largest city had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the late 20th Century.
“It is certainly illuminative of his nature that The Bear took no lead whatsoever in the matter of integration. His defenders will claim that Wallace kept his hands tied, that The Bear wasn't even allowed to schedule teams with black players, much less dress any of them in crimson, and there may be a measure of truth in that. But given The Bear's surpassing popularity, he had it within his power to assume a burden of leadership. Yet he held back on race and let other—and less entrenched—Southern coaches stick their necks out first. Only after Southern Cal and Sam (Bam) Cunningham ran all over the skinny little white boys in a 1970 game, only when it was evident that the Tide couldn't win any longer lily-white, only then did The Bear learn his civics.
On May 18, Bryant boarded a private jet and headed for one of the most desolate parts of Texas to revisit his past. The Junction Boys, the A&M players he had put through the brutal 1954 trial, were staging a 25th anniversary reunion.
At the Junction reunion, Bryant was presented with a commemorative ring. He wore it till he died.
Boys who had survived dehydration, heatstroke, broken bones, bruises, and searing heat were now men in their midforties. They wore brightly colored shirts and happy faces. Some had grown bald, and others had grown thicker about the waist. They were doctors, engineers, lawyers, bankers, coaches, entrepreneurs, educators, architects, oilmen, ranchers, farmers, fast-food deal makers (including one of the founders of Church’s Chicken), and CEOs. Many were millionaires. Some were recognized globally for their feats in high commerce.
"The point of the game will not be the score, the Bear, the Trojans; the point of the game will be Reason, Democracy, Hope. The real winner will be the South.”