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For Perry Wallace, civil rights was no easy layup

For Perry Wallace, civil rights was no easy layup

Strong Inside: The True Story of How Perry Wallace Broke College Basketball’s Color Line: Young Readers Edition
Andrew Maraniss
Philomel Books (Penguin Random House)
272 pages
Dec. 20
Order on Amazon

Journalist Andrew Maraniss brings to light a lesser-known but no less compelling chapter from basketball’s civil rights history.

By Brianna Westervelt

In sports lore, the 1966 men’s NCAA championship game between the Texas Western Miners and the Kentucky Wildcats is well-known — black versus white on the basketball court. (See the 2006 Disney movie, Glory Road, now on Netflix.) Less well-known is the story of Perry Wallace, who, along with teammate Godfrey Dillard, broke through the white wall of the Southeastern Conference when he joined the Vanderbilt University basketball team in 1967.

It was one thing to have an all-black team playing an all-white team (coached by an ardent segregationist, no less). But Perry Wallace dared to grace the mostly lily-white campus of a Southern school and integrate its most famous institution in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement.

Author Maraniss, like his dad, Pulitzer Prize winner David Maraniss, knows a good talker when he finds one, and Wallace provides a wealth of exquisite quotes that his biographer uses to drive the narrative. These five stood out for me:

  1. Perry Wallace did not want to be the first black basketball player in the SEC. So why’d he do it? “I didn’t sign [at Vanderbilt] to show or prove anything. It just happened that the school I wanted to go to was in the SEC.”
  2. On SEC fans in the Deep South: “These (fans) claimed to be good Americans, yet they were viciously attacking a fellow American’s right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ They also claimed to be good Christians, yet one couldn’t call their reactions to me acts of ‘Christian love.’ Finally, people like these believed they were racially ‘superior,’ yet their behavior wouldn’t have qualified as even minimally ‘civilized.’ So, they failed at all of their most fundamental claims about themselves, while I embodied quite well the first two—which after all are the only valid ones.”
  3. On being named the male student who had “made the most significant contributions to the university”: “It was ironic … because I have been a very lonely person at Vanderbilt. I can’t say it any other way. I have been there by myself. Things have gotten a lot better over the years, but it has been a lonesome thing…. Over the years, many people knew my name, but they were not interested in knowing me.”
  4. On leaving Vanderbilt: “People were about to wrap this thing up, this whole experience, into a nice, neat little package, just a quick civil rights success, like a pretty picture, and then put it away so they can forget about it and let it be like a trophy, as opposed to a work in progress where there is a tremendous amount of work that still remains.”
  5. At the retirement of his jersey in February 2004: “Many years ago, Vanderbilt and I set out on a great and ambitious journey. A journey about progress and about justice. And tonight we celebrate that journey’s great success.”

By the end of Wallace’s senior year at Vanderbilt, Henry Harris had integrated the Auburn varsity, a handful of other SEC schools had added African-American players to their freshman squads, and the crowds had become less rabid in their taunting.

Andrew Maraniss has found a story that does what few civil rights books for young readers do: It shows that the struggle for black dignity and equality was a human, messy struggle, as opposed to the sanitized, cheery narratives that drift onto the book market every winter.

 

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