- Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890–1980
In the introduction to Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890–1980, Charles S. Martin indicates that the work’s main purpose is to “describe and analyze the shifting racial policies” (xix) of “historically white” (segregated) colleges and universities in the South from the late nineteenth through the late twentieth centuries. In this effort, Martin succeeds admirably as he has synthesized and evaluated a plethora of primary and secondary sources to examine this complex and highly significant subject. This work is an excellent expansion upon Martin’s earlier research/writing in articles such as “Integrating New Year’s Day” (from the Journal of Sport History) and “The Color Line in Midwestern College Sports,” (which appeared in the Indiana Magazine of History).
The book follows the chronological development and application of Jim Crow policies, early and inconsistent attacks against such restrictions, resistance by [End Page 227] southern institutions after World War II, and finally, the slow dismantling of segregation on gridirons and basketball courts of colleges and universities throughout the South, particularly in the venerable, and most stringently segregationist of these associations, the Southeast Conference (SEC). Martin’s work adeptly articulates the reasons why certain conferences (such as the ACC and the SWC) and individual schools (such as Vanderbilt and Texas Western) were more apt to challenge athletic experimentations in the color line (both in the South, or when traveling to contest northern schools in important intersectional games) while others were more likely to resist (such as Ole Miss and Clemson) such efforts during this ninety-year period.
It is in these chapters (four through nine) where Martin effectively contemplates and nuances the significance of key moments in the historical timeline such as the victory by Texas Western against Kentucky in the NCAA finals in 1966, the “groundbreaking” game between “Bear” Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide and USC in 1970, and the hiring of Wade Houston as head coach of the University of Tennessee basketball program in 1989. Martin then finalizes his work by addressing the key “so what” question of this topic (has integration of sports helped improve race relations in the South?). While acknowledging the limitations to the amount of social progress that sports can help engender, at the end, Martin comes down on the affirmative side of postulation for, as he states, the integration of sport has allowed for “a revised model of southern masculinity” (304) that permitted supporters of schools such as Auburn University to cheer a superb African American quarterback, Cam Newton (though he was scandal-plagued), as he led their beloved Tigers to the BCS championship contest of 2011.
Clearly more research needs to be done; for example, how does the issue of integration “play out” in other athletic undertakings, such as collegiate baseball or for football and basketball in smaller institutions? Martin’s work does not address the first subject matter at all, and the second only in passing. Indeed this reviewer would have appreciated that a bit more attention be paid to the stories from smaller schools (which Martin briefly acknowledges when he introduces the story of football at Texas A&I in the 1960s). Lastly, Martin quickly touches on how integration began to take shape among high school athletics, particularly in Texas. A brief discussion of the 1960 championship season of Corpus Christi Miller High School (which featured African Americans and Mexican Americans) would have added depth and complexity. Still, these are but minor quibbles. Benching Jim Crow offers a mostly complete and nuanced assessment of segregation in southern sports, and should be a standard text in sport history classes for many years.