Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South
Andrew Maraniss has been committed to the interaction of individuals, ethnic groups and sports for a long time. He was awarded the Fred Russell Grantland Rice Sports Writing Scholarship, which is awarded to entering freshmen at Vanderbilt University who are planning to make sports writing their career, through the good offices of the Thoroughbred Racing Association. He wrote a paper in an African American History class, and the rest was history.
In his Senior year in 1992, he won the Alexander Award, which is presented by the American Bar Association Council for Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline in the Continuum: Pre-School to High School to College to Law School.
He continued his association with Vanderbilt for five years, in the Athletic Department as Associate Director of Media Relations. He took up the challenge to serve as Media Relations Manager for the first year of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He came back to Nashville to join the staff at McNeely, Piggott & Fox public relations form, where he remains today.
His community service included service as pas t president of the Nashville Chapter of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (“RBI”). Presently he is an advisory board member of the Albert Pujols Family Foundation. “This foundation is named for the First Baseman for the Angels. The emphasis on “Family” in the title means not only “by” family but “for” families, to help those living with Downs Syndrome and Impoverished Families in the Dominican Republic.
He is committed to the relationship between profession and community and, today, is being awarded a Lillian Smith Prize for highlighting the bravery and struggle of Perry Wallace, who persevered in basketball and law courts as a shining pioneer.
Thank you to the judges and all the great sponsors of this award. I deeply, deeply appreciate this; at the same time I’m personally thankful though I recognize that this award isn’t about me. It’s about the strength and courage and determination of the person I was very fortunate to have the chance to write about, Perry Wallace. What I consider the greatest aspect of this award is that Perry Wallace is getting the recognition as a sports and civil rights figure of the caliber of a Jackie Robinson. In some respects Perry’s journey was more difficult than Jackie Robinson’s when you consider the time and place that Perry was a pioneer -- in the Deep South in the late 1960s. Most people have heard Jackie Robinson’s story. Very few people have ever heard Perry Wallace’s story.
For those of you who don’t about Perry Wallace: he was the Jackie Robinson of the Deep South, the first African American varsity basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, and the first black athlete in the SEC in any sport that played a full four-year career. He went on to attend law school at Columbia University. Today he’s a professor of law at American University. Just an incredible person, and in some ways it’s a shame that it took 45 years after he graduated for someone to tell his story, but I feel very fortunate that I had the chance to do it.
This project for me began when I was 19 years old in 1989. I came to Vanderbilt on a sports writing scholarship. I was a history major and I happened to read a student magazine article about the first game that Perry Wallace and his only African American teammate his freshmen year, Godfrey Dillard, played at Mississippi State University, a road game in Starkville. The racism that they encountered in the first half of the game was so vicious that at halftime Perry and Godfrey, these two young, strong athletes, held hands as they sat on the bench in the locker room to gain the strength to go back out there and play the second half of the ball game. So, as someone who was interested in sports and history, that’s what first grabbed my attention.
I asked my professor if it was acceptable to write about sports in college. I didn’t know if that was cool at a school like Vanderbilt, and, she said ‘Yes, of course go for it.’ So I found Perry, who was then a professor in Baltimore, and interviewed him for a paper that I wrote for that class. I also understand that this is the first time the Lillian Smith awards have recognized a book that deals with sports. I had that same question, would an award like this accept a book about sports, and I’m really proud that you did.
So, thank you for taking a chance on a book about sports. That said, I set out to write a book that was about a lot more than just sports, and Perry Wallace himself used sports as a means to an end. In his case, he saw a basketball scholarship as his ticket out of the south; his way out of segregated Nashville. He had his sights set on receiving a scholarship somewhere in the Big 10 -- northern schools like Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, or the Pac 10. He was recruited by John Wooden out of UCLA. And actually, the reason that he ended up staying home, he grew up in Nashville; he stayed home to attend Vanderbilt not necessarily to make history as a pioneer but because he said he wasn’t going to trade one plantation for another. He wasn’t going to leave Nashville only to be exploited for his athletic ability at a school that told him don’t worry about going to class or we’ll find the easiest classes for you, you’re just here to play basketball.
He made a decision after having a recruiting trip to Vanderbilt where he was impressed by the engineering school and that the players were actually going to class, that despite the fact that he would be a pioneer that he would come do it so that he would get an education and play big time basketball. For me, I pursued basketball as a means to an end as well, as a way to enter the South. You can go with through the vehicle of this smart young teenager who was making history as a pioneer on the basketball court but was traveling to all of these places in the Deep South like Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the governor had just been standing in front of the school house door. Or Ole Miss just a few years after James Meredith was there. But, the thing was, Perry didn’t just make this decision alone. There was another smart, young African American basketball player who’d made the decision to come to Vanderbilt. He came from Detroit, Michigan and he’s in the crowd today. He lives part-time in the city of Atlanta and I’m so happy that Godfrey Dillard is here today. Godfrey’s story is told in the book and takes a different path then Perry’s but Godfrey’s been a huge success in life. He’s argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, he’s been a diplomat in Africa, and he just recently ran for Secretary of State in the state of Michigan.
In receiving this award it’s the first time I’ve read a book by Lillian Smith. I read “Killers of the Dream” just a couple weeks ago and she starts the book by saying, “Even the children knew the South was in trouble. No one had to tell them.” And, as a father of two young kids, I was really struck with the idea of introducing children and the way that toxic environment of segregation affected black and white kids at the time. In the book I talk a lot about Perry’s childhood in Nashville and the dangers that he faced. One time, standing on a street corner to catch a bus, a carload of white teenagers pulled around a corner pointing a gun out the window at his face; he’s just trying to go home from school. He had to walk through a white neighborhood to get to the black elementary school and kids would pick fights with him almost every day on his way to elementary school.
Think about him dealing with the daily realities of living in a Jim Crow town where he sat down in the first seat he saw on the bus not knowing he couldn’t sit there and his mom had to whisk him away to the back of the bus. His family lived right across the street from North High school, which was a white high school, and Perry would have to just stand against the fence looking at these kids having fun playing on the playground at a school he wasn’t allowed to go to. But also, about the determination that he still showed in the face of this society that was designed to limit him. He didn’t let it limit him. So, even in Kindergarten he was showing the signs of character that would see him through the most difficult days as a pioneer in the SEC. His sister Jessie told me that she showed up to pick him up from school and the teacher had left the room and all the other kids in the classroom were going berserk, running around, bouncing off the walls. And there was one kid still sitting at his desk doing his work, doing the right thing and that was her brother Perry Wallace.
Perry’s mom would bring home magazines from her job as a cleaning lady at office buildings in downtown Nashville, and show all the Wallace children pictures in these magazines and say, “there’s a bigger world out there, this is what you can aspire to.” And, Perry considered the slam dunk his freedom song. He said this town that he lived in was dark in many ways and again was designed to limit him, but on the basketball court he found his freedom soaring through the air. And so, even at this playground across the street where he wasn’t supposed to be, on weekends he would go practice his basketball and that’s where he learned how to slam dunk.
And all of this led him into the heart of the civil rights movement. Perry started kindergarten in 1954, obviously the year of Brown v. Board. He was a young kid when Emmett Till was murdered and around the same age and was profoundly influenced by that. In 1960, the lunch counter sit-ins were taking place in Nashville, and Perry would sneak from his parents’ house in North Nashville to downtown to watch the sit-ins and watch the students with his own eyes. He entered Pearl High school in Nashville a week after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He was in high school for the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. And what he told me was that he could feel the country was changing and that there would be opportunities there for him and members of his class, the Class of ’66, that hadn’t been there for their older siblings or certainly for their parents, and that he needed to be prepared to take advantage of these opportunities. And he was.
So he accepts this dangerous assignment to integrate the SEC and come to school at Vanderbilt. And one saying that Perry has today is that all of us can be treated in any of three ways: We can treat each well, we can treat each other poorly, or we cannot be treated at all. And, Perry was treated well by some people, he was treated poorly by even more people, but he would say that the most difficult aspect of his experience was this feeling of not being treated at all, of feeling invisible on this campus and being denied his humanity. And there’s this passage in “Killers of the Dream” where Lillian Smith is talking to a white girl in a theater setting and the girl says to her, “I understand that segregation is wrong and I don’t want to hate people, but I don’t want people to hate me either. And, I’m afraid to speak out because I really don’t want to make waves and have my friends disagree with me” and being just a little bit afraid to challenge the status quo. And, that sense of not speaking is something that happened quite often in Perry’s experience.
I open the book with a scene with his old teammate Bob Warren, who he had played basketball at Vanderbilt with in the late Sixties. Bob Warren didn’t understand at all what his teammate was going through back then, but he played professional basketball for about 10 years, where most of his teammates were African-American. He told me in an interview that’s when it finally began to dawn on him, ‘Oh my gosh’ what hell must my teammate Perry have been going through as we made these road trips through the Deep South. And so, one day Bob Warren happened to be on a business trip in Washington D.C. where Perry Wallace teaches and he took a cab over to American University Law School, the elevator up to the fourth floor and walked into Perry Wallace’s office and shook his hand and said, “Perry please forgive me, there’s so much more I could have done.” Since the book has come out, Perry and I have both received countless e-mails and calls from people who are contemporaries of Perry’s basically saying the same thing: There’s so much more I could have done. When I go speak at schools about this book, my message to the kids is don’t end up as one of those people that take 40 years to realize there’s people around you that need you to reach out a hand. Do that now while you have the opportunity.
The final thing I wanted to say: Also in the book. Lillian Smith says that words can arouse a conscience, and it seems like an obvious thing to say that words can arouse a conscience, but the point she’s making is that too often people don’t express those words. And, the context that she was talking about was that newspapers, even liberal papers at that time in the South, were afraid to speak out about Civil Rights and their concern was that it’d only make things worse. And in that regard the most courageous thing that Perry Wallace ever did wasn’t going out on the basketball court at Mississippi State, it was giving an interview to the Tennessean in Nashville the day after his last game. He said he felt a moral obligation to tell the truth about what his experience had been like even though he knew people weren’t going to be ready to here this truth. That’d he would be run out of town if he gave this interview. Here he had been this high school valedictorian, engineering major at Vandy, All-SEC basketball player, three-time state champion high school basketball player, by all rights setting himself up for a bright future in his hometown. But, he knew if he gave this interview he’d never have a career in this town, but he gave the interview anyway. And, unfortunately he was correct. The day after the story ran people weren’t ready to hear it. I talked to the editors of the paper and they told me that the phones ran off the hook that day, fans calling to cancel their subscriptions to the paper, calling Perry Wallace ungrateful and wishing him good riddance out of town.
But, my greatest satisfaction with this book was that his words have aroused a conscience; it just took 45 years unfortunately. Perry will say that reconciliation without the truth is just acting. It’s a pretty interesting phrase and my hope is that this book represents the truth, and if I did nothing but listen to what Godfrey and Perry had to tell me it would certainly be the truth. So, Perry came back to Nashville the first week of December when the book came out and he was concerned what sort of reception he would get. He hadn’t been back in any significant way since 1970 when he was basically run out of town. He said we’re entering a hot environment, what’s this going to be like? But it turned out to be great. We were in a room sort of like this that seats 250 people. Four-hundred people showed up, we had 150 people across the hall. After we both spoke, they lined up for two hours to see Perry and shake his hand and have him sign their books. And, I was sitting next to Perry, and some people were asking for my signature, but everyone was asking for Perry’s signature and I was observing what was happening. And person after person would come up and they had bloodshot eyes or they were still crying and they were just were like Bob Warren. They were coming up one after another to express this regret they hadn’t done more to understand what Perry was going through at the time. They were finally beginning to understand it after hearing his story and reading the book. Since then, the city government in Nashville has honored Perry at a Metro Council meeting, the state government has issued a proclamation in his honor, Congressman Cohen from Memphis has read something into the Congressional record. When Perry came back to town, the police chief and the mayor were the very first to greet him, which I thought was very symbolic in the most positive way. His story becoming known and arousing the conscience I feel has culminated today with it being included in this great litany of books that have received the Lillian Smith Book award. So, thank you so much for honoring Perry, Godfrey, and Strong Inside. I’m incredibly grateful. Thank you.