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Southern Cultures 7.2 (2001) 84-91

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Southern Voices

"A Position of Respect"
A Basketball Coach Who Resisted Segregation

as told to Pamela Grundy
by John B. Mclendon Jr.



Editor's note: Founded in 1973 by historian Jacquelyn Hall, the Southern Oral History Program (a Center for the Study of the American South component program) works to foster a critical yet democratic understanding of the South. The SOHP collection, now more than 2,500 interviews strong, is judged to be one of the nation's most valuable oral history archives. With this issue we inaugurate a regular SOHP feature, "Southern Voices," which draws heavily from the treasures of southern oral history.

John B. McLendon Jr. was one of the most talented and influential basketball coaches of the twentieth century. He first made his mark at Durham's North Carolina College, now North Carolina Central University, where he arrived in 1937 after studying with basketball's inventor, James Naismith, at the University of Kansas. McLendon transformed basketball in the Colored (now Central) Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), pioneering an incisive, fast-break style and vigorously promoting CIAA talent. In 1951 he moved to Tennessee A & I, where his 1957 team became the first from a historically black school to win an integrated national championship, that year's National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) tournament. His long string of coaching accomplishments and groundbreaking efforts to foster athletic integration won him election to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982.

In the following account, which describes an incident from the 1940s, McLendon details the kind of day-to-day negotiations required of African Americans living under Jim Crow, as they sought to maintain individual dignity without also provoking violent reaction. Like many coaches of his generation, McLendon became a master of such techniques, teaching his players discipline and strategy that stretched well beyond the games they played.

McLendon maintained undimmed energy until his death in 1999. He sat down for this interview in February 1998 in the midst of a whirlwind of activity at the CIAA tournament being held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He recalled his long career with zeal, telling stories, explaining his multifaceted coaching philosophy, and describing his many efforts to use sports to promote African American achievement and interracial understanding.

This story is rendered in poetic transcription, a style developed by poetry-minded scholars in folklore and linguistics. At certain moments in oral interviews, narrators leave off normal conversation and move into another realm of speech, recounting artfully shaped stories marked by rhythm, repetition, and other techniques of oral storytelling. Presenting these accounts in poem-like form highlights such patterns and more fully conveys the experience of listening to the words.

With the exception of a brief excision near the beginning, the story stands as McLendon told it, word for word. To hear it in his voice, go to the web site of the University of North Carolina Center for the Study of the American South at and look for the McLendon link. [End Page 85]

You can find more on McLendon's career at North Carolina College and on African American athletics in North Carolina in Pamela Grundy's Learning to Win: Sports, Education and Social Change in Twentieth-Century North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

One of the best ways to play the game is avoid confrontation.
The next is to make the adversary ridiculous. . . .
It's a matter really of learning--
not your place.
But learning how to maintain a position of respect.
And to do this you do try to avoid confrontation.
Because if you're made to lose your dignity,
stripped of your manhood in front of your players,
you can't be in a position to tell them to be a man,
about life, about anything.
That's what you're trying to make of them, men who can handle life well.
And you can't do it if . . .
You might have to almost be ready to sacrifice your life to...


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