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How College Sports Have Helped Break Color Barriers

Jun 16, 2011

Student athletes may find themselves under a lot of pressure as they balance classwork with trying to be a top sports performer week after week. For African American athletes playing at the collegiate level during the Civil Rights movement, the pressure was far more intense as they dealt with racism while fighting for equality and tolerance.

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By Jessica Lyons

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Obstacles to Overcome

Even after court rulings determined segregation of schools to be unconstitutional, college sports teams still were comprised predominantly of white athletes in the beginning of the 1960s. Racist attitudes were a big stumbling block. Whether it was fans, coaches or the community at large, some people just weren't ready to see African American players on their teams.

There were even state laws that got in the way. A 1956 Louisiana law prohibited segregated sports competitions from being played. Political leaders in Mississippi once went as far as to say they wouldn't fund schools that chose to play schools whose teams were integrated. Laws and threats like these made it tough even for schools in favor of integration to easily support the efforts.

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Athletes Who Made History

Although African American athletes had been part of college sports since the 1800s, there are many from the 1960s who are remembered for their contributions to the Civil Rights movement. These student athletes may have merely wanted to play their sport, but they instead became examples. Their stories, which have been immortalized in books, movies and even plays, promoted equality while also giving other African Americans hope that they could be accepted into a world dominated by whites.

Former Syracuse University running back Ernie Davis made history in 1961 when he became the first African American to be awarded the prestigious Heisman Trophy. Davis led his Big East team to a championship and was a two-time All-American. He went on to be a top pick in the NFL draft, but passed away in his early 20s of leukemia.

Changes in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), made up mostly of southern schools, started to take place in 1963 when Darryl Hill joined the University of Maryland's football team, making him the first African American to play football in that conference. In 1965, another University of Maryland athlete, Billy Jones, became the first African American to play basketball in the ACC.

It wasn't until 1966 that the Southeastern Conference saw its first African American players when Nat Northington and Greg Page started playing football for the University of Kentucky. However, it wouldn't be until about five years later that each school in the conference had at least one student athlete who was African American.

Another notable college sports event happened in 1966 when Texas Western, now known as the University of Texas at El Paso, defeated Kentucky in the NCAA basketball championship. What was unique about this game was that it marked the first time five African American players were starters in a championship game. Earlier in the season, Coach Don Haskins also started five African American players in a regular game, which was the first time any major school had done so.

Their Legacy

These athletes, as well as others who fought to break the color barrier, had to endure a great deal. Some had racists comments yelled at them while others had drinks thrown in their faces. There were even teams not able to stay at certain hotels due to the mere fact they had an African American teammate. And, during the 1966 championship game between Texas Western and Kentucky, a Confederate flag was shown in the stands.

In addition to helping pave the way for future athletes, these students exhibited many qualities that make them positive examples for the generations that have followed them. They showed others how to be strong, determined and successful all while standing up for what they believed in.

While these players are role models, there are concerns that some of today's student athletes might be getting unfair special treatment.

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