Some Detailed thoughts on the book Across the Line: Profiles In Basketball Courage: Tales Of The First Black Players In The ACC and SEC by Barry Jacobs

Over the past year our country has been forced to have conversations about the historical and systemic oppression against people of color in our society. The murder of black people in this country can now be filmed- which has sparked outrage and conversations like never before. Both the killing of George Floyd and my own college’s strike against embedded racism in predominantly white institutions have caused me to not only think and talk about race, but to educate myself on the complexities of the systems that have enabled it for all of time. My basketball team normally reads a book about themes like toughness, leadership, hard work, etc. This year we decided to read a book about race in basketball. This is my opinion on what I read. 

I didn’t necessarily have high expectations when I went into this book. No offense to Barry Jacobs, but on the back cover he looks like a white guy and a couple days before reading this book I had just finished listening to the brilliant words of black revolutionaries and artists like Thomas Sankara and Michele Wallace. I was then surprised at the complexity and multi-faceted ways in which this book was approached, it pleasantly snuck up on me in the narrative that was created. Jacobs managed to tell the real tales of the first black men who broke the color barrier in college basketball; he didn’t spare the truth even when it was uncomfortable. I actually felt the most education in these uneasy passages, it forced me as a person of privilege to confront systems that were enabled by people who are still alive today. One example of this was when I was reading about Claiborn who was an athlete at Duke when my grandmother attended. While it is easy to simply demonize and remove oneself from the violence of the past, it is harder to reconcile with the idea that the past is still alive and benefiting from the system today. These stories are not that of history textbooks, but of middle-age diaries, and current every-day traumas. These experiences of racism and violence in the world and in the game of basketball are not only still a part of today, but still thriving in a system that unless confronted, will continue to oppress for the rest of time.

In “Forms of Hell” we learn about Perry Wallace’s experience at Vanderbilt University from 1966-1970. One theme throughout the book that we can see through Wallace is how these programs looked to recruit black men who were perceived as non threatening and perfect in the way he would interact with whites and white racist attitudes. Dillard though, did not fit into this tiny hole that the white world so wanted to peg him in. One quote that I felt embodied this really well was when Wallace remembered Dillard as exhibiting “‘the same sense of spunkiness and spirit as almost any white boy at Vanderbilt’” (30). Here proves the notion of this model he was forced to be that he inevitably and understandably rejected. He was forced to noy only confront the role that we as basketball players have to understand, but the role of his full identity at the school. Was he a political tool or just a basketball player? This question was something that all the athletes in this book eventually confronted. Dillard ended up suffering extreme trauma from being forced into a pioneer role in a system that for so long and still currently is violent towards POC. Not only was there blatant violence but no one actually cared to know who he was as a person. He was forced to reckon with the notion of hatred, the extreme violence against him was not only traumatic but would shape his ideals in the way he had interactions with the other. 

In “Between Worlds” we learn about C.B. Claiborne’s experience at Duke University from 1965-1969. As I said before this story really stuck out to me because my grandma attended Duke for three years a little bit before Claiborne arrived. We’ve had conversations about segregation, and racism at her school, as she’s spoken of her ignorance to any sort of perspective outside of the white person. While she has always had fairly progressive views her lack of awareness to the other experience really sticks with me. Often I realize that the teammates and fellow students of these black pioneers are still alive today, dictating our laws, hiring us for jobs, and voting. One small little note that I found really ironic and relevant to today was the part about southerners’ opinion on Dr Martin Luther King as being a communist. That word is oftentimes thrown around today at those who stand for equality, even at such a moral figure like MLK we can see such extreme false demonization. This has not changed at all. Claiborne also really relates to me because of his relationship with activism and boycotting on campus, he was one of the first black athletes to visibly engage in campus protest. Jacobs wrote “as far as basketball as concerned, he felt he had little to lose” (71). Claiborne knew that fighting for his equal right to life was more important than basketball at the time, as it still is today. He said that the fact that he got through his time at Duke was remarkable, something that a lot of people of color today often say; showing the real lack of change in attitude we’ve had on campuses. Claiborne’s legacy would be taking that first step. 

In “Fall From Grace” we learn about Henry Harris Jr.’s experience at Auburn University from 1968-1972. This chapter starts out by learning about his suicide, something that indefinitely relates to his time at Auburn. While Harris was a naturally confident leader he was too forced into the position of being a trailblazer where every one of his mistakes and flaws would be scrutinized by the masses in ways that were out of the realm of basketball criticism. Most of the coaches and players from his time there were ignorant not only to the hardships and violence he would face because of his race, but how it led to his suicide. Another crucial element we learn through Harris’s experience is the fact that since he was the first black man on his team, it was inherently isolation due to the sheer fact that he couldn’t even talk to anyone about it. One line that is repeated constantly throughout the book by either white teammates or white coaches we can see written here: “‘I guess I didn’t even realize the challenges that someone like that would have to go through’” (90). Ultimately, Auburn and those at Auburn failed him. Not only as a basketball player which would have been a problem in its own, but as a person and as a human who ultimately took his own life. Violence is not only punching, lynching, and blood, it is truama of being demonized and ioslated, it is what these black athletes had to endure. 

In “The Loneliest Number” we learn about Charles Scott’s experience at the University of North Carolina from 1966-1970. I want to start out write away with a quote that really summarized the ethos of a lot of this book: “Scott proved the rule- if there was such a rule- that a pioneering black player would gain acceptance only if he was so good that no critics could reasonably dispute that the player deserved a scholarship” (97). Two things I would add to that was that critics would also only accept the individual if they socially fit into the mold expected of them. Likewise we cannot disregard the pressure that this notion then put on an individual, and that this pressure was violence in itself. Scott accounted that his presence as the first black athlete was not something he was really aware of, perhaps this would help him? Loneliness was another thing that Scott also inevitably experienced, how can one have positive experiences or deal with negative ones when there is no one there for you. Scott also accounted for the tough decisions he was forced to make, such as either boycotting or participating in the Mexico City Olympics. We are able to learn about the pressure and position that he was forced into, ultimately the decision of what he did was made for his own self-preservation and survival. Today, we have to remember that, especially in a time full of protests. Scott was an example of the multiple roles black athletes are forced and expertected to develop, more than just what their white counterparts have to experience. 

In “Door Jamb” we learn about Wendell Hudson’s experience at the University of Alabama from 1969-1973. Hudson is yet another example of how he was expected to noy only be a great basketball player, but a great person in order to pave the way for future balck athletes. “All involved point to Hudson’s calm, steady, unassuming but uncompromising manner as a crucial element in winning acceptance for African American athletes” (129). Not only were black athletes forced to be the best at their game but they were forced to be the best social role models. Many southern schools thought it crucial that their first black athlete contain both of those skills right away. Another crucial element we can learn through Hudson’s story is how his own community viewed him in a problematic lens. They saw him as a sell-out and conforming too much to the white man’s world. While understandable, this only added to the pressure and difficulty in Hudson’s experience. We also see in Hudson’s time at Alabama how his presence on the team forced his teammates to confront and reckon with Civil Rights issues. While they might have been able to previously avoid them, now their own teammate and supposed brother was going through these issues. While Hudson might be more of a success story we can credit that to his personality that perfectly matched his role. Yet, we shouldn’t need a perfect person for this role, why can’t we just have basketball players who are good at basketball? Shouldn’t that be enough? 

In “Pipe Dream” we learn about Norwood Todmann’s experience at Wake Forest University from 1966-1970. One line that really stuck out to me related to Wake Forest’s relation with its Christianity. One board member said “‘How could we be sending missionaries around the world to convert people to Christianity and then fail to open our doors to them’’” (151). If we look past the unethical nature of missionaries he does make a good point. But looking at Todmann we read about the narrative of basketball as an escape from something like the hood. We also read a lot about the continued ignorance of white teammates and coaches. Oftentimes we seem them claim colored-blindness, which I would argue is just as problematic as blatant racism itself. If we refuse to see color we refuse to see the historical and lasting implications of racism and oppression on an individual, and how even today, society sets them behind. We also read about the rise of black power in its rejection of traditional definitions of white success. This chapter provides a lot of narrative about how this new black pride clashed with the coach’s McCloskey’s traditional structures embedded in white supremacy. That is undoubtedly why Todmann clashed so much with them; the systems the coach was so obsessed with were rooted in white supremacy. 

In “Prisoner of Choice” we learn about Tom Payne Jr.’s experience at University of Kentucky from 1969-1971. Payne Jr.’s story is definitely the most unique in the whole book, as he raped multiple women after his basketball at UK and served many years in jail for his crimes. Payne Jr’s claims that it was the racism he encountered at the UK that caused him to be violent towards white women which we know has severe historical implications. (many innocent black men were lynched for being accused of raping white women, although almsot all were innocent. We can see this plays at white, male fragility and their fear of the black man). One point Payne Jr. made which I thought was really important was when he said “You never hear any person apologize for racism… A lot of people were really trying to justify that there was no racism, that Kentucky wasn’t racist. And it’s a historical fact that Kentrucy was racist and there was racism” (171). While in all the other stories we hear about the white ignorance and lack of awareness, it is interesting to hear a black athlete point out the violence in that. The abuse that Payne endured undoubtedly had an effect in his violence crimes, we can see that legacy taking place in generations of black survivors starting from American slavery. The abuse stemmed from his racist coach, surroundings, and the individual racist acts that can send a person over. He was a role model as the first black athlete at UK, only to then commit these horrendous crimes. One can only imagine the negative effect aht would have for black athletes at UK or in the south for the future. While as a female athlete, it is easy to dismiss Payne’s victimhood, we cannot. It is obvious to me that the racist abuse he endured at UK had to at least have a small effect on his violent future. 

In “Friendly Bounce” we learn about Al Heartley’s experience at North Carolina State University from 1967-1971. In Heartley’s story I really liked reading about the dichotomy of relationships between whites in black in an urban versus rural setting, and then how entering that urban setting would bring a new dynamic. Heartley accounts that while he grew up in the country where black people and white people had good relationships because they grew tobacco together, that same neighbor would ignore you if in the presence of other white people in a more populous setting. I think that speaks a lot to the issues of racism in white people. While some of his high school classmates transferred schools in efforts to participate in integration I thought it was good to hear the perspective of why a black student wouldn’t want to: “Heartley, like many athletes at Johnston Central, did not, content instead to stick with friends, teammates, and a setting with which he was familiar and in which he thrived. ‘We needed pioneers in those days, and I didn’t want to be a pioneer at that level… I played basketball; I played baseball. I was in the band. I was president of my class. So I wanted to stay’” (201). His parents thought doors would be opened if he got a degree from a predominantly white institution which is why he ended up where he did and eventually walked on the team. Heartley reflected a lot about his fear and the white silence, sort of an uneasiness that was always around him. Heartley though was an excellent model for what whites wanted, his coach trusted him and the local media respected him too, which was special considering the media’s normal tendencies of being racist. 

In “Penn Pall” we learn about Ronnie Hogue’s experience at the University of Georgia from 1969-1973. Georgia was especially full of blatant racists and the KKK. However, there were a lot of balck people living in Athens so he felt like he could relate to those people. He was actually interested in the pioneer role, the leadership role, that would come with being the first black player at the University. Hogue though considered his playing and leadership style to be naturally more militant than pacifist: “‘I wasn’t like a Martin Luther King guy; I was more like Malcolm X. If you know how to fight back, people give you respect’” (225). Another reason Hogue chose to go down South despite its reputation is the fact that his southern-born mother wanted him to learn the ways in which he would later be forced to interact with white people, especially in the workforce. Something important that came up that I found really interesting was when Hogue discussed his views on dating black women rather than white women because he wanted little black boys to see him as a proper role model- not thinking gblack women weren’t worth their time. This also brings up the dynamic that I talked about with a different story of black-men and white-women relationships. Although he initially wanted to be a pioneer during college he didn’t think much about it, although many would say he had a big and positive impact. 

In “Forbidden Territory” we learn about Craig Mobley’s experience at Clemson University from 1969-1971, and Casey Manning’s experience at the University of South Carolina from 1969-1973. At Clemson Mobley was oftentimes faced with the question of taking a stand with his black peers or sticking to just playing basketball which would appease his white supporters. Unlike other athletes who were just trying to survive, Mobley decided to stand with his contemporaries. He said “‘I’m walking down the street and it’s dark at night; nobody’s going to care if I’m a basketball player or not’” (242). He now wonders if his choice to join the walkout was one of the reasons his basketball career was cut shorter. In South Carolina a soldier once wrote “It seems to me that the average [white] South Carolininian is so afraid that the negro will get ahead that he is willing to sacrifice his own rights to make sure that the negro won’t have any” (243). Manning grew up in a town that was more tolerant than most and went to school in Columbia which was obviously less isolated and closer to home for him. This section also talks about the impracticality of segregation: how it actually costs more economically to keep people segregated. Manning was seen as the pioneer and he fulfilled the role that was needed, it helped that he was a local too. In fact, this locality actually helped him, it gave him something to focus on and other fans liked him because of it. 

In “All in the Family” we learn about Collis Temple Jr.’s experience at Louisiana State University from 1970-1974. Temple Jr. was brought up in a purposeful way by his parents; one that protected him from the violence of white supremacy and segregation and expected black empowerment. One specific thing they did that really stuck out to me was how they would only seek medical help from black professionals. This relates to now because we can currently see a huge discrepancy in the way black people in this country receive medical care. Temple said “‘My mom and dad basically kept me from being exposed to heavy, heavy racism at an early age so I wouldn’t become indoctrinated by having to act and feel a certain way and be inhibited about dealing with people’” (272). On the court Temple continued his parent’s lessons, he was a natural hard worker. Another thing he described is the expeciation to be militant, he said that he needed to focus more on just protecting himself. LSU did little to make black students feel welcome, and a football based culture did not help. His sister was really hesitant of the violence and struggle he would face as a pioneer, although she now acknowledges that he was probably the only man good enough to do the job. He also talked about avoiding white women which I mentioned before. Another thing that made him more special is he stood up for himself when called racial slurs on the court, in the other stories the athletes would usually just ignore it; I found this interesting and telling of his upbringing… which strategy worked best, who knows. 

In “Shooting the Hoop” we learn about Coolidge Ball’s experience at the University of Mississippi from 1970-1974. Ball was described as not only really good, but a really good player. Jacobs wrote, “One cannot truly appreciate Ball’s success and acceptance without understanding Mississippi’s devotion to castelike social and racial order than sentence African Ameriacns to enduring threat and limitation” (293). The state had a long history of sharecropping and lack of quality education that endures to this day, with the social order being preserved by whites who know how bad it is, but prefer it in order to uphold white supremacy. Emmit Till is also an important story to remember in this state. Going into college basketball, Ball just wanted to be an example of a black athlete. His manner was understated and his game was really good, something that helped his relationship with his team. He also became the intermediary between players and coach which broke down not only a racial barrier, but a status barrier. Also uniquely, Ball actually ended up settling down near his former University, something that definitely didn’t happen with most of the other stories we read about. His case was definenly more positive. 

In “Rear Guard” we read “Later Gators” and learn about Malcolm Meeks who went to school between 1970-1972, and Steve Williams who went to school between 1970-1974 at the University of Florida. We then read “Far From Home” and learn about Al Drummond who played at the University of Virginia from 1970-1974. We then read “Actions Speak” and learn about Wilbert Cherry who went to school from 1970-1972, and Larry Robinson who went to school from 1971-1973 at the University of Tennessee. Finally, we read “Sneakers” and learn about Larry Fry who went to school from 1971-1975 and Jerry Jenkins who went to school from 1971-1975 at Mississippi State University. Contrary to popular belief Florida actually took a good amount of time to integrate, and was caught up with the other southern states. Players in Florida really struggled with these attitudes along with coaches who were blind and ignorant to the real life implications of racism. Williams said “‘It was probably just a Southern attitude with a lot of folks- that there’s a place for a black person, and at this university is not the place’” (315). For Drummond in Virginia the experience was similar. He started out going into the program daily ignorant to the color barrier he would be breaking, the coaches did not prepare him at all for what would follow. “Drummond says it was only on the court that he felt out of place in Virginia” (318). I think this speaks volumes to his experience of needing to be the black token that his coaches wanted, they don’t care about him as a player. In Tennessee Cherry was eventually cut from the team while Robinson focused more on just getting through the experience. For Robinson the book said “breaking barriers was not something [he] discusses readily even in middle age” (324). At Mississippi State University recruiting was also focused more in state and it was hard because “racially separate high school basketball tournaments remained the norm in Mississippi” (328). Generally teams that refused to integrate properly were the teams that also did bad on the basketball side. 

I really enjoyed this book and would love to read more about white violence in basketball outside of this small group of Universities in the South. Reading about women’s integration too, would be something I am really interested in. 

Published by ellakotsen

student at Bryn Mawr College

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