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The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow in Southern College Sports

The North Carolina Historical Review in its July, 1999 issue (Volume LXXVI, Number 3) published a marvelous overview and indeed in depth article on desegregation of sport in the American South. The article, “The Rise and the Fall of Jim Crow in Southern College Sports: The Case of the Atlantic Coast Conference” by Charles H. Martin is one of those landmark publications which appears too rarely in sport and sport history. Deep in detail, accurate in historical research, and objective in its approach, the article chronicles the history of desegregation in basketball and other sports in the south. Professor Martin, from the University of Texas El Paso notes the impact of race upon sports and the radical changes caused by desegregation of sports at colleges and universities in the south.

The south had to overcome the idea, belief or mores that “interracial competition represented a betrayal of white supremacy because it suggested the possibility of racial equality not just on the playing field, but elsewhere in southern society.” The ACC along with other southern conferences were finally able to recognize that “they had reached the pragmatic conclusion that the profits and prestige from full participation in a national sporting culture, which no longer accepted a color line, were far more important than ideological purity and athletic isolation.” The author makes a well stated case that sports in the American South and especially intercollegiate sport were in the vanguard of a liberalizing trend, although be it a mild one, the integration process was a slow one and full participation in college sports by African-Americans was long in coming. Institutional discrimination (read racism) barriers were slow to fall but in the late 60's and 70's, fall they did. The African-American student athletes saw and sought opportunities and the teams saw the benefits of African-Americans participating in college sports.

Self interest benefits and not idealism were the riving force that resulted in integrated sports teams according to the author. There were and are impacts on universities' mascots, team names, flags, symbols and more, but many of these have been resolved. The school colors replaced the confederate flag and the win-loss column replaced the demonstration by and for African-American athletes.

Sports helped change the mind, the mores, the practice and participation patterns on college campuses and this helped form the idea of the New South. Prices were paid by people of color for progresses made on the field; the pioneering athletes and schools have seen their dreams come true; the south is still not where it needs to be in integration of sports but any reader must admire the distance which has been traveled.

This article is a landmark one and while I disagree with some of the author's statements, I find much to be proud of for the author, the African-American athlete and the Southern University.

Note: This reviewer had the privilege and pleasure of meeting with the author when he was doing some of his research in Chapel Hill. I was impressed by the scope of his tasks then and am now impressed by his accomplishments.