MLK's dream lived first on ballfields

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, which was actually Jan. 15, 1929. It seems an appropriate time to consider what sports and some pioneer athletes did for integration in the Deep South, Mississippi in particular.

Having been a product of those times I well remember. Indeed, I remember when Sam “Bam” Cunningham ran roughshod over Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide in 1970, rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-21 USC victory.

Legend has it Bryant said afterward Cunningham had done more for integration in Alabama in 60 minutes than MLK had done in years. Whether Bryant actually said that is disputed. (Some say it was Bama assistant coach Jerry Claiborne.)

What is not in dispute is this: In Mississippi and the Deep South, sports showed the citizenry first-hand that whites and blacks could work together and be better off for it. Our locker rooms were integrated long before our churches and our businesses.

Wee Willie Heidelburg

That same fall of 1970 was when Wee Willie Heidelburg ran for two touchdowns (on three carries) and helped USM defeat Ole Miss 30-14 in the biggest upset in Mississippi sports history (my opinion, but you show me one bigger.)

Walter Payton went from all-black Jefferson High to previously all-black Columbia

Payton

High. And suddenly white kids who had never socialized with black kids had not only a black friend but a black hero.

Said Charles Boston, Walter’s coach, “To me that did a lot for integration. When people saw Walter carry the football, I don’t think they considered him a black boy but a Columbia Wildcat.”

It was happening across Mississippi.

In Tupelo it was a running back and star student named Frank Dowsing. In basketball, the Short brothers, first Eugene and then Purvis, caused much the same result in Hattiesburg. Bert Jenkins, the Hall of Fame coach at Gulfport High, was among the first to integrate his teams. Jenkins’ Commodores, a powerhouse before, became better than ever.

Then came Hall of Famers Dowsing at Mississippi State and Ben Williams at Ole Miss.

Ben Williams.

Seems almost unbelievable: At Ole Miss, the football team was all-white in 1970. Gentle Ben Williams enrolled the next year and three years after that was elected Colonel Rebel, essentially Mr. Ole Miss.

It wasn’t all without controversy or prejudice. When white schools and black schools combined, the plum coaching jobs nearly always went to the white coaches. In time, that has changed.

Bottom line: Sports has moved Mississippi toward MLK’s dream. We could argue for days whether we are there yet, but there is no arguing this: We are closer, much closer, because of sports.

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