In 2000, Walt Disney Studios released “Remember the Titans”, the story of Coach Herman Boone (played by Denzel Washington) and his first year as head football coach at T. C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. One of the things that makes this a great movie is that it never overtly states the movie’s theme: high school football in the south was one of the factors that eased the transition to integration in that region. Most of what follows is personal reflection since there has not been (to my knowledge) any systematized study of this phenomenon in the scholarly literature (not that I would be able / trouble myself to discover it).
The story takes place in 1971, which was two years after I graduated from high school in 1969. Five years earlier, in 1964, I vividly remember sitting in junior high school homeroom for about 45 minutes listening to the school principal as he read the text of the 1964 Civil Rights Act recently passed by Congress and signed by president Lyndon Johnson. The man read the Act without particular emotion – as though it were something the law required him to do, having no especial meaning for him. At the conclusion of his address, we went to our usual first-period classes without any discussion. The school’s administrators may have thought that the subject held no meaning for their charges but, if they did, they were quite mistaken: we students debated the issue of integration with no less passion (and ignorance) than our elders. In any event, Robert L. Osborne Junior High School was not suddenly flooded with black students, because all the black students lived within the city limits of Marietta and that city had its own, segregated, school system.
In 1967 the Marietta school system closed the all-black Lemon Street High School and integrated Marietta High School along with the rest of their system. This was approximately midway through coach French Johnson’s illustrious career as head coach of the Marietta High School football team. Coach Johnson had a better-than average career leading the Marietta squad up to that time, but with the 1968 season, Marietta High became a football powerhouse. Given the resources of Lemon Street students previously denied him, Johnson retired in 1972 with a record of 125 wins, 46 losses and 7 ties. Thats a 70.2 win rate. Prior to his arrival, the school could only boast a 45% win rate from its founding in 1920 to coach Johnson’s arrival.
The Marietta Blue Devil Marching Band also changed. Prior to 1968 they were excellent – being one of only two bands in the district capable of playing music and marching at the same time. Everyone else marched to a drum cadence and performed standing still. Beginning with the 1968 season, they were fabulous! They added capes to their uniforms. Their drum major was a vision of the future Michael Jackson. They didn’t just march, they STRUTTED across the field, leaning back and forward in time with the funky music they performed. They didn’t just lift their legs while marching, they kicked and bobbed and flung their capes in a spectacular display. Obviously, someone else was also taking advantage of the new talent pool from Lemon Street.
And the community changed. For years after 1968, black and white students at Marietta High segregated themselves within their integrated environment. But after the first integrated class graduated in 1970 that began to break down bit-by-bit as new arrivals paid less-and-less attention to the racial divide. That racial divide began to transform into the more usual cliques in high school society. Jocks stayed with jocks, social climbers with social climbers, shoppies with shoppies and nerds with nerds. If you took a photograph of the Marietta fans in Northcutt stadium on Friday nights over the years, what you would see in 1968 was black fans sitting with black fans and white fans sitting with white fans. Over time, that snapshot would slowly evolve until now, it doesn’t matter. Everyone sits wherever they like and the race of the person next to them is superfluous because they are all there to support the Blue Devils.
High school football is a serious business in the deep south. It is followed in the local press by fans who pack the local stadiums on Friday nights. Citizens debate the virtues of individual players without reference to race. In the final analysis, if a kid makes a great play, it matters not to the local fans if he is white or black – he is OUR kid, playing for OUR team. When a true sports fan waxes eloquently on some player’s athletic virtues or faults, race is NEVER an issue worth considering.
Not mattering is the key to racial harmony. I lived for several years in the central Georgia town of Cordele, deep in the black-belt. The city council was comprised of black Democrats and white Republicans and they argued among themselves in the unseemly manner we have all come to expect from politicians. But they were in solid and fraternal agreement that Cordele’s football team could whip any other team in their division.
Midway through Remember the Titans, the local peckerwoods heave a brick through coach Boone’s living room window. Several weeks later, after securing a place in the division championship series, Boone returns home and he and his family are greeted warmly by their previously aloof neighbors. Obviously, there’s a bit of theatrical telescoping involved here, but the point is justified nevertheless. It didn’t matter that coach Boone had integrated the football team. It didn’t matter that he had supplanted the previous (white) head coach. It didn’t matter that he and his family lived in the “white” part of town. What mattered was that he had built a winning football team and lead it from triumph to triumph. Had he failed to do that, I have no doubt that his race would have been a prominent feature in the local discussions regarding his failure.
If not mattering is the key to racial harmony, then sports is the perfect place to find it because, in the grand scheme of things, sports does not matter. I’m no fan, but I can still appreciate the awesome skill of Michael Jordan in basketball and the fielding wizardry of Andruw Jones in baseball. A joke circulated several years ago and I remember it only imperfectly. It went something like this: “There is something seriously wrong in the world when the greatest golfer is black, the best basketball player is Chinese, the most popular rap artist is white and …” (I don’t remember the fourth element). The first phrase is intentionally wrong. What the joke means is that some things are becoming seriously right.