Review of Andrew Maraniss's "Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South"

tags: racism, book review, Andrew Maraniss, Strong Inside

Luther Spoehr, a senior lecturer at Brown University, co-teaches a course on the history of intercollegiate athletics.

Much has been written about the “collision of race and sports in the South” (and the rest of the country), and much of that literature has focused on dramatic events of the turbulent 1960s, such as the University of Texas at El Paso, with five black starters, defeating Adolph Rupp’s all-white University of Kentucky squad for the 1966 NCAA men’s basketball championship.   As examples like this suggest, the emphasis in the standard narrative is on turning points—moments when, as we too often like to say, the culture was “transformed.”  Teams are integrated, championships are won, and the narrative moves on.

There is, of course, some truth to this approach.  But too often, as we observe such moments from the outside, we don’t learn much about what it was like on the inside, and the price that was paid by young pioneers who lived daily in the belly of the beast.  That’s why Andrew Maraniss’ “Strong Inside,” despite its occasional interpretive reductionism, is an important book.  In his research, Maraniss consulted numerous newspaper archives and conducted many interviews, the most significant and telling of which were with Perry Wallace himself.  As subject and source, he is the star of this story.

In 1966, Wallace became the first African-American to enroll in a Southeastern Conference school on an athletic scholarship (technically, he wasn’t the first African-American to play in the SEC—a non-scholarship baseball player at Tulane participated in the spring of 1966).   Wallace didn’t set out to be a pioneer (“I’m not mature enough to be a Martin Luther King or a James Meredith,” he said when he was a freshman), but in many regards Vanderbilt University couldn’t have selected a better man to be one.  Wallace was valedictorian of his senior class at Nashville’s segregated Pearl High School and an All-State forward who led his basketball team to the state championship in Tennessee’s first integrated tournament (the tournament was integrated, although the schools weren’t).  Recruited by many northern schools, he chose to stay close to home to pursue a degree in electrical engineering and engineering mathematics. 

Nashville had been the center of the civil rights movement while Wallace was growing up, so he knew about sit-ins and Fisk University and the central roles played by leaders such as James Lawson, John Lewis, and Diane Nash.  But he did not think of himself as an activist.  Vanderbilt seemed suitable place to settle in.  As a private university in the Upper South, it was less subject to racist pressures like those imposed by state legislatures in states such as Mississippi.

There were very few black faces at Vanderbilt, however.  (One of them, Godfrey Dillard, a street-smart basketball player from Detroit, quickly became a close friend.  When he decided to leave school, Wallace felt truly isolated.)  The Vanderbilt social scene was not always blatantly racist.  But with its social life organized around fraternities and sororities, it was dominated by a white upper-middle class that prized many sorts of exclusivity.  Unsurprisingly, Wallace’s own social scene came to include Nashville’s black colleges.

Vanderbilt was warm and welcoming compared to places like the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State.   James Meredith had integrated Ole Miss in 1962, but the school had hardly been transformed.  Maraniss’ description of the Commodores-Rebels showdown in February 1968 is one of several chilling episodes in the book.  The crowd—led by football players all too eager to behave stereotypically—hooted and jeered Wallace relentlessly.  “We’ll lynch you, boy!” is one of the more printable taunts they directed at him.  When he took an elbow to the face that drew blood and had to go to the locker room, the crowd went wild.  And when he was delayed coming out for the second half, he walked in by himself, exposed to the crowd’s abuse. As Maraniss says, “He understood more clearly than ever that his journey as a pioneer was one that he would be making alone.”  Unlike Jackie Robinson, he had no Pee Wee Reese to put his arm around his shoulder and show solidarity.

Vandy won that game, 90-72, a most satisfying outcome.  “Why the hell didn’t anyone ever say anything?” Wallace wondered.  Remarkably, he seems not to resent his teammates (many of whom have since apologized to him for their passivity) or his coaches.  Maraniss (himself a Vanderbilt graduate) follows right along; he seems unfortunately uncurious about why Coach Roy Skinner, by all reports a decent man, acted as if nothing were happening:  “Treating Wallace the same as the rest of his teammates meant no talks with the team about what Wallace was encountering on the road, no pleas for the team to band together in support of one of their own.”  Well, okay.  But under the circumstances that policy seems downright idiotic.   Jackie Robinson was 28 years old in 1947 when he broke the color line in Major League Baseball.  And Branch Rickey had made sure he knew what he was in for.  Wallace, age 19, had no one.

Perhaps coaches and teammates thought ignoring the uproar would end it more quickly.  If so, they played into the conspiracy of silence that surrounded such incidents.  Newspaper reports generally said nothing about them.  And the Deep South—Mississippi, in particular—was still trying to remain hermetically sealed, even as national newspaper and television coverage revealed more and more to the outside world

Unlike Vanderbilt football, Vanderbilt basketball had a tradition of success, but it struggled in Wallace’s last season, finishing with a 12-14 record.  Wallace, however, finished in style:  he was named to the All-SEC second team;  he received the SEC’s Sportsmanship Award (a tacit recognition of what he had gone through?); and Vanderbilt gave him its Jim Robins Award as the senior athlete “in whose life is evident devotion to learning, to honor, to participation in the manly sports and to service to youth and alma mater.”  Perhaps most satisfying, in front of an appreciative home crowd, he ended his last game with a thunderous dunk, a shot that had been recently outlawed.  The officials overlooked its illegality.

Decompressing from four years that had been more than stressful, Wallace let down his guard in an interview with the student newspaper, saying that his experience at Vanderbilt was best characterized as “lonely.”  Most people on campus were stunned.  Wasn’t this the same student who had just won the school’s most coveted title, named (with characteristic student irreverence) “Bachelor of Ugliness,” given to the most popular and admired student on campus?   Wallace’s tone was more disappointed and weary than angry, but the interview opened a rift that took years to heal.

Fortunately, heal it did.  Recently, Vanderbilt has honored Wallace several times.  In 2004, when the school retired his jersey, it was clear that the institution had changed.   His old friend Godfrey Dillard looked around and said, “Perry, they’ve got more black cheerleaders now than there were black students back in our day.”  Wallace changed course, too, going to Columbia University Law School and embarking on a legal career that eventually took him to the Justice Department and now a professorship at American University.

Throughout this engrossing story, Wallace’s own voice rings true—measured, thoughtful, and amazingly non-judgmental.  Maraniss, a public relations executive who first interviewed Wallace as a student-journalist in 1989, tells this riveting story well, with an eye for details that define the scene.  Left to his own interpretive devices, however, he leaves too many loose ends.   Why didn’t Wallace’s teammates, his coach, the athletic director do more to help him through the valleys of the shadow that comprised the team’s road trips?  Why did students who clearly admired Wallace not also befriend him?  What does this say about the state of racial perceptions in the mid-60s? 

Instead of coming to grips with these and similar questions, Maraniss either ignores them or lapses into a default mode that blames slights large and small on racism.  Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times we live in, one more lasting legacy of this society’s original sin, but these days, instead of denying racism’s role in everything, we find it everywhere.  According to Maraniss, banning the dunk in 1967 was racist, a pushback against “Black Power.”  Really?  That’s all it was?   When Wallace and his wife consulted a doctor about their daughter’s medical condition, the doctor “seemed to have difficulty dealing with a black family…frowning as she spoke in simplistic terms as if the Wallaces couldn’t possibly comprehend what she had to say.”  Has Maraniss never been condescended to by a medic before? 

Fortunately, Maraniss’ reductionism does not detract too much from the power of  his well-told narrative.  Wallace’s story is both inspirational and cautionary, and it is not merely useful but essential that we try to understand its implications, both historical and contemporary.  We will be unraveling the tangled history of racism for a long time; trying to see it whole and also as part of a larger picture is perhaps the most difficult task facing historians today. 

That’s true at the personal level, too.   Wallace was only 25 when he said, “The danger of being a pioneer is not in the immediate experience, but reconciling the experience for the rest of your life—hoping it does some good.”  Wallace’s life and career have clearly done “some good.”  This book will, too.


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