Review of Samuel G. Freedman's "Breaking the Line"


Luther Spoehr, an HNN Book Editor, teaches the history of higher education, including intercollegiate athletics, at Brown University.

Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football that Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights
By Samuel G. Freedman

Simon & Schuster, 2013

First on this review’s agenda, a note to the publisher:  For many years, a common approach to nonfiction titles and subtitles was to have an attention-getting, but somewhat mysterious, phrase as the title, followed by a subtitle that explained what the book was really about.  Recently, however, the marketing departments have evidently taken charge, especially of the subtitle, and a remarkably creative lot they are not.  Little known people or events are invariably being hyped as “transformative,” as “changing the course” of history.  (This morning’s spam from about “New and Notable History Books” brought news of both Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair and the Transformation of America and Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World.) But you, Simon & Schuster, by using BOTH “transformed” and “changed the course” in your subtitle, have finally exhausted my patience.  Enough, already!  Stop it! 

Samuel Freedman’s books—this is his seventh—don’t need that kind of crude hyperventilating.   His The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond  (1996)—note the non-bloviating subtitle-- was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. The subtitle of Small Victories (1991), an engaging exploration of urban education, was helpful and modest: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students, and Their High School.

Freedman doesn’t try all that hard to deliver what the subtitle promises, and it’s just as well.  His story about the paths that brought Jake Gaither’s Florida A&M Rattlers and Eddie Robinson’s Grambling Tigers to the 1967 Orange Blossom Bowl, widely viewed as the championship of black college football, is well told.  But despite the author’s rhetorical gestures towards defining it as a turning point, it’s clear that the event, which drew a large crowd to Miami’s Orange Bowl, was just one more step on the long and winding road to black equality.  Indeed, Freedman tacks on a chapter about the Tampa Classic of 1969, which pitted Florida A&M against the all-white University of Tampa—and was arguably more of a turning point than the Orange Blossom Bowl:  “Such a contest had never taken place in the South.”

The two-chambered heart of Freedman’s smooth, vivid narrative is the tale of how Gaither (1903-1994) and Robinson (1919-2007) used football to bring pride and prominence to their respective schools and to black athletics in general.  Their football credentials were impeccable: in his first 20 years at Florida A&M, beginning in 1945, Gaither lost only 25 games.  Freedman notes that “over the decade leading into the 1967 season, Gaither had sent nearly as many players into the AFL and NFL (nineteen) as had the University of Miami (twenty-one) and nearly twice as many as had Florida State and the University of Florida (ten apiece).”  Robinson, who coached for nearly half a century, from 1941 to 1997, won 408 games and saw over 200 of his players go into professional football.  In 1967, 20 Grambling players were in the pros.  But no white school ever offered either coach a job.

Freedman is at his best when he goes beyond football to show how Gaither and Robinson navigated the segregated South and how they struggled to adapt when that world began to change as a result of Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the rapidly rising tide of the Civil Rights movement.  “Florida A&M was simultaneously a bold expression of black self-determination and the ward of an all-white state government,” Freedman observes.  “Gaither never let himself forget it.”  It was Gaither who conceived the idea of what became the Tampa Classic and expertly buttered up the oleaginous Florida governor, Claude Kirk, to gain his support.

The philosophy espoused by the two men was clear and simple:  “For Robinson, there was no point in railing against the unfairness of the world; resentment would devour you from the inside out  There was only the perpetual effort to improve the self and uplift the race.  ‘When you get your opportunities,’ Robinson often told his team, ‘make the most of them.’”  Meanwhile, “Gaither was coach, teacher, preacher, father.  He bought them shoes when they had none, paid for the dentist when they couldn’t afford it, sprang for boxes of candy when they angered a girlfriend, covered their registration fees until they could reimburse him.  [Mercy! Don’t tell the NCAA!]  He laid down just three rules in return…‘Get your lesson.  Stay out of trouble.  And give me all you’ve got.’”

Freedman also shows how other leaders at Grambling and A&M, motivated by similar philosophy, worked to sustain and improve their part of the South.  As Grambling’s president from 1936 to 1977, Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones turned a school of 120 students, 17 faculty, and 9 buildings into one with 4,200 students, 410 faculty, and 41 buildings and “adroitly manipulated the state government into funding a building boom for the campus just to show those Yankees that separate really was equal.”  (In “calculatedly folksy fashion,” he got the Louisiana legislature to change the institution’s name in 1946 by telling them, “When we are playing football and the other team has the ball on our five-yard line, the other team has scored by the time our cheerleaders can say, ‘Hold that line, Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute.’”)  At Florida A&M, William Patrick Foster made the halftime shows of the “Marching 100” almost as big an attraction as the football team. 

But as the civil rights movement shifted from the courtroom to picket line and protest, and then added more than a tinge of militancy, a new generation of players found that philosophy increasingly outdated and unnecessarily accommodating.  In 1967, many band members objected to the  “Marching 100’s” patriotically-themed halftime show. In the emerging national recruiting competition for players, black athletes had many more options beyond what were now called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), as traditionally white institutions sent their recruiters south.  Even so, the schools continued to be a source of professional talent:  Grambling’s James Harris was the first African American to start the season at quarterback for an NFL team.  Doug Williams, inspired by Harris’s example, followed him to Grambling and became the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

Although individual success stories would continue, the earth beneath the football programs at all of the HBCU’s was already quaking when the 1969 Tampa Classic was played.  Freedman’s “Epilogue” includes very recent history, but he doesn’t get into the scandal surrounding the 2012 death of an A&M drum major in a hazing incident, or the 2013 boycott of their own program by Grambling’s football players, who were protesting dangerously unhealthy practice conditions, dilapidated equipment, and having to travel by bus for hundreds of miles for away games.  They had also been angered by the University’s sudden dismissal of their popular coach, Doug Williams.  The team, heir to a proud legacy, was winless.

The 1967 season in black college football did not “change the course of the civil rights movement” so much as it added to its momentum--as it had for many years and would for many more.  The movement created or shaped many memorable moments, almost any one of which could be labeled in some sense a turning point.  The Tampa Classic of 1969 was one of them, but so was the Orange Bowl’s 1955 decision to allow an integrated Nebraska team play Duke.  Or, moving beyond the world of HBCU’s, so too was the Cotton Bowl’s 1948 invitation to an integrated Penn State team.  And so were many other actions, before and after the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic. 

Lasting, significant change can result from the cumulative effects of many small events, and perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the long history of the civil rights struggle, where a few hairline cracks in segregation’s edifice turned into fissures, and then into enormous breaches of the wall.  Over the past century, especially since World War II, American society has been, yes, transformed by multitudes of people, including football coaches and their players, each doing their bit.  To quote a line from “Dead Poets Society” (recently resurrected, alas, for commercial purposes):  “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”  Even if history book hustlers who manufacture subtitles choose not to understand that, Freedman’s book shows us that Gaither and Robinson did.

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