jake_gaither__web.jpgLiberty City Link – At a time when a Tallahassee newspaper could publish an article about the “successful lynching” of young African-American men and when an innocent black man was hung and shot after being accused of raping a young white woman, two football coaches at historically black colleges had the courage to change college football and the civil rights movement.

Grambling College’s Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson at Florida A & M University, “were the first field generals of freedom and equality,” said Samuel G. Freedman, author of Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,  (Simon & Schuster), in a talk Wednesday, Feb. 26, at Church of the Open Door.

Gaither trained James Harris, who went on to be the first African-American starting quarterback in the National Football League; Robinson arranged the 1969 football game in Tampa that was the first to pit a black college against a white one and the largest integrated event held in the region at that time.

Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University who also writes the New York Times “On Religion” column, is author of seven acclaimed books. He spoke to some 45 people, some of whom played under Gaither and Robinson and others of whom were the children and grandchildren of Grambling, FAMU and other HBCU graduates, explaining how a white, Jewish man came to the topic.

Freedman recalled being inspired by the Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood, about whom he wrote Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, as well as by the 1968 Emmy Award-winning documentary Grambling College: 100 Yards to Glory.

“I saw this revelation of football and all this knowledge that I didn’t have; I had to find some way of bringing together the civil rights movement and football,” he said.

The Rev. R. Joaquin Willis, the Church of the Open Door’s pastor, introduced Freedman with a chapter from the Book of Isaiah emphasizing the release of captives, prisoners and slaves, offering a theological grounding to the talk.

“It’s much more than about football,” Willis said.  “Until you face your history and address your history without holding in the anger towards your
history, you cannot move on from it, and that’s what I see in this book.”

Breaking the Line exposes football culture for what it was in the 1960s: a tool for racism and separation between blacks and whites.  In those times, college football was not just a sport of entertainment, but one of the main pillars of segregation.

“There was no NFL — there were no pro football teams in the south, no pro baseball teams, no pro basketball teams,” Freedman said.  “Football was essential to white supremacy because it was not just any spectator sport; it was too important to be integrated.”

For Gaither and Robinson, breaking the hold of segregation on football was the most difficult challenge they could have hoped to accomplish.

So they started out with what they could do—preparing their football players to be leaders in equality and educated young men.

“They both had master’s degrees and they were married to educators,” Freedman said.  “They wanted to model their educations and their marriages in their student athletes.”

Gaither and Robinson recruited students to their teams not by boasting to parents that their sons would become professional football players, but by assuring them of two things: their sons would go to church on Sunday and go to class every day.

Woodard Vaught, a FAMU graduate who played under Jake from 1951 to 1955, remembered.

“He always made sure that we went to class. Being on the football team was how I got through school,” he said. “His wife, who was a teacher, would report you if you didn’t go to class.”

Every player knew the purpose of football scholarships was to let them get degrees, not to blaze a path to the NFL.

“Gaither and Robinson wanted every one of their players to be a walking-talking case for the end of inequality,” Freedman said.

For Robinson, it meant volunteering for the cleaning crew at white colleges so he could catch glimpses of football plays during practice and get a chance to watch some of the games.  He would write down plays and notes on pieces of scrap paper to understand how profootball teams won games.

For Gaither, it meant befriending segregationist politicians and sending letters of congratulations when their football teams won games; it meant keeping a separate section in the FAMU stadium for whites so they could watch the games without being “bothered” by African-Americans.

After years of enduring criticism that he was too close to the white, segregationist establishment, Gaither fulfilled his dream: A game between FAMU and the University of Tampa, that FAMU won, 34-25.

And in a sold-out stadium of 47,000 people, the fights and riots that white coaches feared never came. 

“It all went as smoothly as Gaither hoped it would,” Freedman said. 

At Grambling, Robinson set about to make Harris the first African-American starting quarterback.

After all, playing quarterback  was not just about physical strength; one had to be a leader amongst their team; in times where African-American athletes were still compared to apes and animals who could “run plays by following their instincts,”  asserting himself as an educated leader of a football team was a major obstacle for Harris.

On the one hand, Robinson says, “‘I know you’re good enough, I know you can do it,’” Freedman said.  “On the other hand, he says, ‘If you don’t make it, don’t say it was because of your race,’ which is, of course, the reason.

“What he’s saying is you’re going to have to be twice as good to get an equal chance.  You’re going to have to be the first one on the field in the morning. You’re going to have to be the last one to leave the field at night,” Freedman said. “You’re going to have to run the playbook up and down and sideways.”

And Harris did it on opening day in September 1969, when he started the season with the Buffalo Bills in the then-American Football League, Freedman concluded.

Gaither and Robinson changed football and civil rights in America, Freedman said.

“It hasn’t made America a perfect society, but it has made America a better one,” he said.

Contact Alex Blencowe at ablen001@fiu.edu