Breaking the Line: Samuel Freedman on Football and Civil Rights

Picture 1In week one of the 2013 NFL season, there were nine African-American starting quarterbacks—evidence that much has changed since 1967, when there was only the dream of desegregation for historically black colleges and universities in the South.

That dream is the focus of a new book by Samuel Freedman, a Columbia University journalism professor and columnist for the New York Times. Last week, Freedman visited UT to talk about Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.

Sponsored by the Texas Program in Sports and Media and the John J. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies, Freedman’s talk centered on the ’67 football season for Grambling State University in Louisiana and Florida A&M, which culminated in the Orange Blossom Classic—the “black Super Bowl” as Freedman called it—between the two teams. Freedman also discussed how the specific teams and coaches changed the game and affected the civil rights movement.

Freedman explained that Eddie Robinson, head coach at Grambling, was instrumental in the “great experiment” to have the first African-American quarterback in the NFL. James Harris was groomed by Robinson in high school to be the first black professional quarterback. Their combined dedication paved the way for future African-American quarterbacks such as Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, he added.

cvr9781439189771_9781439189771_lg“In this case there were two really important breakthroughs,” Freedman said. “To have a black quarterback be successful in the pros knocks down several racial barriers, and the idea that blacks don’t have the character or mental toughness and moral strain, it shoots that down.”

Freedman also noted how Florida A&M head coach Jake Gaither dealt with the criticisms of seeming sympathetic to segregation in order to achieve his main goal, a chance for his team to play an all-white school. His opportunity came in 1969 when University of Tampa head coach Fran Turci agreed to the game, which was played in front of 40,000 black and white fans, as Gaither successfully managed to create the largest act of desegregation that the South had ever seen.

“It wasn’t just that it was the first white-black football game and how great the coaches were or how great the team was,” Freedman said. “It was about desegregating public space.”

Book cover courtesy of College of Communication, Texas Program in Sports and Media

Photo by Sara Barrett


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