Nearly 50 years ago—when segregation ruled college football in the South—a transformational game took place, pitting a team led by African-American players against one from a powerhouse that was almost entirely white.
The black team won, and the cult of white supremacy on the gridiron was shattered.
And given football’s powerful cultural influence, the game stands as a landmark in civil rights history.
Many football fans in America will think that the football game in question was the 1970 matchup in Birmingham, Ala., between Coach Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide and the University of Southern California Trojans. And this assumption is reinforced anew by a Showtime documentary, Against the Tide, which suggests that Bryant arranged the game in order to advance the cause of integration.
But that narrative is wrong.
The pivotal game in the desegregation of college football had occurred a year earlier, between historically black Florida A&M University, under its legendary Coach Jake Gaither, and the University of Tampa, which was regularly defeating teams from major conferences.
Before a sellout crowd of 45,000, A&M won the game, in what may well have been the largest mass act of desegregation since emancipation. A sportswriter for the St. Petersburg Times, one of the rare Southern newspapers to support the civil rights movement, put the stakes correctly: “They carried Jake Gaither off the football field at Tampa Stadium last night and 63 years of prejudice, confusion and misinformation left with him.”
So why, then, is the Alabama-USC game given undeserved credit? Why is Bear Bryant lifted up as an activist for racial equality? The answers have a lot to do with a certain fondness in the white public for race stories with white heroes.
The best way to understand Against the Tide, based on the excerpts available prior to its Nov. 15 premiere, is in the context of similar films and books such as Mississippi Burning, The Help, 42 and The Blind Side. In all of them, it takes brave and good white folks to save, teach or advance the well-meaning but benighted blacks. Blacks are passive recipients of their own liberation, whether it’s provided by Branch Rickey or J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
And with their massive exposure, these flawed, feel-good accounts tend to crowd out true stories of African Americans struggling to free and uplift themselves.
This much, though, is true: Bryant and USC Coach John McKay agreed to a home-and-home series in 1970 and 1971. In the first game, on Alabama’s home field, a Trojan team led by black fullback Sam (Bam) Cunningham and quarterback Jimmy Jones routed the Crimson Tide 42-21.
The enduring story is that after the defeat Bryant said words to the effect of, “I’ve got to get some of those,” meaning black players. And, indeed, the next season, Alabama suited up its first black player, Wilbur Jackson. And whether accurate or apocryphal, you don’t have to think of Bryant as college football’s preeminent segregationist in order to view his redemption as suspect, even if Showtime quotes one commentator who calls Alabama-USC “the most important game in American history.”
His 1961 Alabama team turned down a Rose Bowl bid against UCLA because of a growing campaign to have the Bruins’ black players boycott the game in protest. When four black players tried to make the Crimson Tide as walk-ons in 1967, they vanished before the fall season. Later, in 1969, activist lawyer U.W. Clemon sued Bryant because of his failure to recruit black players. (The case was dismissed in 1971.)
But like most major Southern university football programs at the time—Ole Miss, LSU, Georgia, Florida State and even elite private schools like Tulane—Bryant’s Alabama team was typical. The team remained segregated for years after its student body integrated. And the reason could be distilled down to one line in the Alabama fight song:
That line served as a dog whistle, calling out to bigots and reassuring them that as long as an all-white team could be national champion, winning bowl games, then white supremacy remained the law of the stadium, even if it was no longer the law of the land.
Meanwhile, ’Bama-USC obscures the FAMU-Tampa game—a vivid example of black Americans fighting for themselves.
Jake Gaither had spent decades of his coaching career at A&M, seemingly removed from the civil rights movement, even cultivating cordial relations with Florida’s segregationist governors and legislators. All along, however, he had a single purpose: to eventually gain permission for his Rattlers to play against a predominantly white college team.
Gaither understood the obstacles against such a game. A victory for FAMU would prove a black team could outplay a white team and a black coach could out-think a white coach—two concepts that were anathema in Jim Crow society. So while Florida’s regents feared that outcome, and feared that an integrated game would set off a race riot, in 1966 and 1967, Gaither cashed in his political chips, adroitly lobbying the state Board of Regents and eventually getting their approval.
They only approved the game verbally, leaving no written record. That way, if the whole thing blew up, and a race riot happened, all the blame would fall on Gaither.
Then after two years of waiting, Gaither found a white coach willing to take up the offer and the risk. Fran Curci, the new head coach at Tampa, was a Northern-born racial liberal who had taken the Tampa position only on guarantee that he could desegregate its team. Playing FAMU would help advance his ideals and goals.
Curci had a few black players on his 1969 Tampa team. But the FAMU game was still mostly white players versus black, and as such it was freighted with white assumptions of black inferiority. As Joe Girard wrote then in the St. Petersburg Times, “If the Rattlers win or at least make it close, the wire services would have no choice but to admit that football in the black colleges is on a par with football anywhere else, and treat those colleges accordingly.” It‘s a point well-made, and that extends well beyond football.
On the night of Nov. 29, 1969, the Rattlers defeated Tampa 34-28, and Curci made a point of telling sportswriters that he had been outcoached by Gaither. It was a close game, played in front of a racially mixed crowd of 45,000, and there was no taunting, fighting or riot.
Some years later, Jake Gaither looked back, saying, “That game has to be the most important game of my life,” and that it “proves a game of that type—with tension and competitiveness—could be played between whites and blacks in the Deep South without any undue racial violence, without the fans, the players or the community becoming upset, with good sportsmanship by both teams and the public.
He set out “to prove to myself that it could be done in Florida—the deepest state in the Deep South.”
And, Gaither said, “We did it.”
Samuel G. Freedman is the author of Breaking the Line, a new book about black college football and the civil rights struggle.