Dixie’s Last Stand: Race, Football, and Alabama as a Site of Change

Alabama was an important site of change during the 1950s and 60s. Montgomery and Birmingham were at the heart of the civil rights movement. George Wallace stood on the steps of Foster Auditorium trying to prevent desegregation in Tuscaloosa. Football, too, was changing and a part of this change. In their new book Rising Tide: Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, and Dixie’s Last Quarter, Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski retell the stories of Bear Bryant and Joe Namath, and highlight a period of transition in southern football culture and the American South.

“Football and race, race and football — they were what white Alabamians talked about, argued about, and commiserated about. They were what unified a state sharply divided racial, class, and educational lines…” Roberts and Krzemienski suggest (20). Football offered a respite from the troubles of 1950s and ‘60s, particularly in Alabama. Gridiron success was an integral part of Southern culture and unified the region’s anti-integrationist position through Gentleman’s Agreements.

The football team at the University of Alabama began to lose its footing during much of the 1950s, however.  After winning only four games in three seasons, the Crimson Tide knew it was time for a change.  Alabama hired Paul “Bear” Bryant to rebuild a once proud program in 1958. One of the nation’s leading college football coaches, Bryant was an Alabama alum who built successful programs at both Kentucky and Texas A&M. Now back at Alabama, he was hailed as a savior. But a savior of what?

According to Kurt Kemper, football was a deeply regional game during the 1960s and symbolizing regional practices and cultural values. The South took pride in their all-white football teams and used their success to reinforce their way of life. Indeed, victories over integrated teams in bowls games did not threaten them, but rather proved that they were superior.

The tension between all-white Southern football and pressures from other schools, governmental officials, and the civil rights movement lay at the heart of Roberts and Krzemienski book. The authors interweave the narratives of race and football during the most heated years of civil rights activism in Alabama suggesting that although the Crimson Tide restored their football legacy the South’s time was fleeting. Young, brash, and northern quarterback Joe Namath serves as one of the main foils to the well-established and revered Bear Bryant.

Immediately, everybody knew Namath was different. He was a working class kid from a broken home in Western Pennsylvania with star- written all over him. Namath headed to Alabama only after his other options fell through. He had scholarship offers from schools such as Iowa, Notre Dame, and Maryland, but failed to score high enough on his entrance exams to be eligible in the Big Ten or ACC.

Although Bryant became a larger in life figure, he, too, came from a working class background. He deeply believed in not only working hard but outworking his opponents, and upon arriving at Alabama rebuilt the team in his image. Respect and integrity were integral parts of his leadership but loyalty and never giving up were also crucial. Bryant was fiercely competitive.

Namath often tested the fiery old coach with his rowdy behavior and penchant for pushing the limits. But Bryant was tested in other ways too. The Saturday Evening Post tried to defame Bryant with a report that he and Wally Butts, the athletic director and former football coach at the University of Georgia, conspired to fix a football game. Both men were innocent, but it took a long drawn out libel suit to restore Bryant’s name. He received jabs from other publications and journalists too. Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times stirred the pot as he condemned segregation in the South writing “an all-white team has no business being no. 1” in reference to Alabama’s 1961 championship team (137).

Throughout the fast paced narrative, Roberts and Krzemienski carefully posit important questions about the role of football for southerners during desegregation. Football was undoubtedly a symbol of white southern identity. President Kennedy often made football references in his speeches as he tried to reach out to the cultural values of southerner during an increasingly tense time. Even if football was an important Southern cultural symbol, Bryant and the Crimson Tide tried to steer clear of controversy.

To be sure, Bryant and Alabama saw change looming. They played an integrated Penn State team in the 1959 Liberty Bowl, and lost. The hiccup, however, was mostly brushed under the table. In fact, few southern newspapers even noted that Penn State had black players.

Change loomed larger away from the football field.  Throughout the book Roberts and Krzemienski sketch the larger story of civil rights. Rosa Parks jump started the movement with the Birmingham bus boycott in 1955 before Bryant returned to Alabama. In the summer prior their 1961 national championship, however, the freedom rides were in full swing. The election of George Wallace in 1962 intensified the struggle as Kennedy and the weight of the federal government turned its sights towards the University of Alabama.

Bryant was out of the state in the summer of 1963, but Joe Namath remained on campus. As “segregation forever” ended, and the first black students enrolled at the University, Namath was selling price-gouged sandwiches to the federalized troops. A few months later in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed. The Tide rolled on.

The Kennedy assignation affected the 1963 football season rescheduling a few games. The suspension of Joe Namath for breaking team rules affected it more. Alabama ended the season with two losses, but ranked 8th in the AP poll.

Namath returned for his senior season in 1964, but suffered a knee injury that lingered most of the year. The injury didn’t matter as Alabama scraped together an undefeated, 10-win regular season, and were voted national champions despite losing their bowl game. When he played, Namath was a star. He’s strong arm, pinpoint accuracy, and quick release sparked his team and provided several quick-strike touchdowns. Even with the knee injury, there was no question he was headed for the pros.

The talented young quarterback from Western Pennsylvania teamed with Bryant to restore Alabama’s southern football tradition. Namath, however, also pushed the old coach, and the sport in general, towards change. The 1965 Orange Bowl, their final game together, was the first prime-time color TV football broadcast. In the weeks leading up to the game, Namath negotiated an unprecedented $427,000 contract with the AFL’s New York Jets. Thanks to Namath’s star power and NBC’s TV contract with the AFL, the economics of professional football were transformed.

That’s where Roberts and Krzemienski end their book. For them, the 1964 season was “Dixie’s Last Quarter.” Alabama’s 1964 national championship was the last won by an all-white team that did not play a single integrated team. It would not be until 1971 that a black player would suit up for the Crimson Tide, but pressure for integration steadily increased after the 1965 season. What was once a point of southern pride became a lightening rod as the “national condemnation over segregation…threatened to overshadow Alabama’s football success” (Kemper, 199).

Rising Tide is a football book first. It’s filled with big personalities and game action, but it’s not light on context. Roberts and Krzemienski never stray far from the tension of change and the backdrop of civil rights This allows them to reveal the larger cultural tensions of the era and position Alabama as an important place during the 1950s and ‘60s for reasons that aren’t so obvious. The book is a fantastic contribution to the shelf of any sports fan, but also broadens our understanding of southern culture and sports during the civil rights era.

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