Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980 (review)
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Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980. By Charles H. Martin. (Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2010. Pp. xxiv, 374. $90.00 cloth; $30.00 paper)

For almost two decades, those of us who write about race and college sports have been citing journal articles from Charles Martin, all the while patiently waiting from him to finish what we assumed was to be a magnum opus on the subject. In Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980, Martin finally delivered. It was worth the wait. While most scholars, myself included, remain fixated on sporting confrontations of the civil rights era, Martin rightfully begins his story in the period where modern American racism took shape. The 1890s, which produced not only the Plessy and Williams Supreme Court decisions and the nightmarish spike in lynchings, not surprisingly also produced the first recorded efforts to exclude blacks from college sports. Far from identifying sporting Jim Crow as a distinctively southern institution, Martin shows the extent to which northern schools often excluded blacks from their rosters as well. Most significant is Martin's original and exhaustive work on the gentlemen's agreements, those sometimes unspoken and at other times contractual arrangements by which one school agreed to hold out its black players to avoid offending the racist sensibilities of their opponents. The extent and openness of these agreements, engaged in by some of the biggest names in college sports and schools who otherwise trumpeted their egalitarian views, demonstrated the extent to which blacks in American society remained so thoroughly marginalized through the 1930s. And the end of these agreements in the 1940s and 1950s usually came from students or off-campus protests, not from a belated democratic consciousness on the part of coaches, athletic directors, or university presidents. Though Martin avoids drawing the direct conclusion, this, more than anything, demonstrates the insulated, self-interested position that commercialized college sports has always taken.

The end of the gentlemen's agreements and a growing hostility to segregation outside the South reserved for segregated athletics [End Page 120] in the postwar years an ever-shrinking competitive arena. Martin spends the remaining two-thirds of his book examining in detail the process by which southern schools, oftentimes unpleasantly, came to grips with that realization. Avoiding a broad approach shored up by scattered representative examples, Martin instead examines, conference by conference, almost every single school in the former Confederacy which plays big-time college sports. While the approach sometimes gives the narrative a dry encyclopedic read, it allows Martin to demonstrate the nuance and varied circumstances by which desegregation occurred, revealing the intensely personal and often intangible meanings segregation and its destruction held for so many Southerners on both sides of the color line. Most shrewdly, Martin discusses basketball and football in separate sections, demonstrating the oftentimes paradoxical underpinnings of segregation. For example, the University of Kentucky was one of the first Southeast Conference schools to desegregate its football team but one of the last to desegregate its basketball team. Along the same lines, Martin shows that southern schools usually desegregated lower-profile and nonrevenue sports such as tennis and track-and-field much earlier than basketball and football, and often without any public comment or awareness.

If Martin's book has any weakness, it is that in striving successfully for breadth, he sacrifices depth, never able to spend more than few pages on the process at a single school. For example, in discussing North Carolina basketball, Martin justifiably notes that Tar Heels head coach Dean Smith was "one of the few southern coaches who viewed athletic integration as an ethical and moral responsibility," but he does not discuss the evolution of Smith's views or how they may have affected the process in Chapel Hill (p. 164). Similarly, Martin notes that neighboring black communities often provided social and emotional support for pioneering black athletes, as at Wake Forest, but again, he does not pursue that matter with greater amplification. Such criticisms, however, are trivial in the face of the tremendous archival...