- Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890–1980
The current generation of sports fans would find it difficult to imagine that there was a time in American history when black athletes were banned from competing at some of the most prestigious universities in Big-Time college athletics. Indeed, with the over-abundance of talented African Americans participating in college basketball and football in today’s mass marketed sports environment, it is unthinkable to the average American born after 1986, that there were once policies in place promoting the exclusion of some of the most talented individuals from amateur sporting contests. Unfortunately, the reality of how America has developed and changed over time since the end of the Civil War is not important to a majority of Americans who are not interested in the past or what can be gleaned from its exploration and study. This is a problem. [End Page 516]
Charles Martin’s Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890–1980 explores the history of American sports within the context of a post Civil War America and the challenges endured by the nation regarding its ideas about equality and freedom, racial destiny, and the meanings associated with sporting competitions between blacks and whites. Comprised of nine chapters with provocative titles such as “White Supremacy and American College Sports,” “Hold That (Mason-Dixon) Line,” and “From Exclusion to Prominence,” Martin historicizes the systematic changes in how amateur athletic competitions progressed over time paralleling the challenges simultaneously unfolding in American politics. Martin argues that this “historic shift from rigid segregation to full inclusion represents an important but sometimes overlooked accomplishment of the civil rights era” (p. 9). Indeed, the direct and indirect contestations of the policies and cultural norms which served to maintain order within an overtly racist society were not only being challenged by black athletes participating in mixed race competitions but in most instances became the examples by which black communities dismantled the psychological grips of Jim Crow.
Through his focus on intersectional competitions between Northern and Southern colleges and universities and the significance of black athletic success against white supremacy, Martin effectively presents his argument on how sports challenged the American style of Democracy in place at the turn of the twentieth century. Furthermore, his research reveals how critical decisions made by coaches and officials at various institutions helped undermine the entrenched racism maintained through the gentleman’s agreement that had been in place to avoid the “unacceptable possibility of white defeat and the resulting blow to southern masculinity” (p. 14). From Ivy League schools in the North that believed that blacks were their social inferiors to the institutions of higher learning in South Eastern Conference (SEC), which maintained their historical and emotional ties to the history of the South, racial bias was a necessary tool in an effort to maintain one’s identity as part of the dominant racial hierarchy. Still, because not all potential intersectional opponents agreed to the “No Negro” exclusion clauses, teams found other ways to deal with African-American players on teams that did not acquiesce or succumb to tradition.
In 1923, Iowa State University’s first black football player, Jack Trice, died of internal bleeding a few days after playing a game against the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, in which he was brutally beaten when he was caught on the bottom of a pileup. Numerous other incidents involving the extra-rough treatment of African-American athletes when umpires were not looking or observed in plain view, persuaded some to sit out when asked to while others chose not to continue their pursuit of athletic glory. Ironically, during the latter half of the twentieth century, African Americans would become the most valuable commodity to Division I athletic programs and through whose success universities and colleges would attract a student body desirous of excitement and the need to be associated with...