Sports Won’t Save US: Sports, Race, and Charlottesville

By Louis Moore

Nothing happened! No race riots. No so-called “racial contamination.” No intermarriage. Just a football game. On October, 11, 1947, Chet Pierce, the 6’4” 215-pound lineman for Harvard, became the first Black man to play an integrated college football game in the South. “In the shadow of Confederate monuments,” he played that game in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia, the same city that experienced a White terrorist attack on August 12th, nearly seventy years later. “No better place could have been selected to prove that this silly Southern custom had no foundations from the beginning,” announced E.F. Corbett of the Norfolk Journal and Guide, “for this city is the home of Thomas Jefferson, the father of Democracy.”[1] According to one Black writer, Pierce “took no notice of the [Confederate] flags as he turned in a spectacular performance, which finally won the plaudits of the confederacy flag bearers.”[2]

Pierce (#70) blocking during on a Harvard kick off against Virginia in Charlottesville, October 11, 1947. Image captured from Harvard Video Archive footage of the game.

Just as people did after Pierce’s barrier-breaking game, many Americans today, with the horrors of Charlottesville on their mind, look to sports to help ease racial tensions. Many celebrate memorable moments — such as when Charlottesville native Chris Long put his hand on Malcolm Jenkins as Jenkins protested during the National Anthem — that promote peace, democracy, and racial reconciliation. Yet, despite these moments that produce visions of racial brotherhood, the seventy-year span between Pierce breaking the color barrier in Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer teaches us that sports will not save us from racism as long as Southerners cling to their monuments.

In 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Pierce’s performance stood as another mark in which the public looked to integrated sports as proof America could achieve true democracy. The game between Harvard and Virginia, which the host team won 47-0, signaled another so-called breakthrough for racial progress. To be sure, the Black press looked at Pierce’s performance as a watershed moment that would destroy the South’s heritage of hate. One editorialist for the Chicago Defender declared, “These paradoxes provide us with further evidence of the fact that segregation is just a phony device for the racist which can be turned on and off like an electric switch whenever it suits the purpose of the Southerners. Those who tell us that segregation cannot be destroyed are clearly talking through their hats.”[3] Similarly, Lem Graves Jr., of the Pittsburgh Courier wrote, “In fact, the calm and peace which marked the demise of all of Dixie’s hallowed illusions lead some unalterably to have long since discovered the fallacies in the racial theories so convincingly mouthed by the politicians, and so carefully aped by the unprogressive leaders of Southern community life.”[4] And in the Cleveland Call and Post, Doc Young used his column to claim that Black athletes had more power to create change than traditional Black political leaders, lamenting, “Sports are powerful factors for democracy and downright good in these United States. It may not be as intended or as it should be; but, the righteous truth is that the doings of a Joe Louis or a Jackie Robinson have more gripping and moving effects on the thinking of the majority people than all of the long-studied and wise words of a W.E.B. Du Bois, a Walter White or an A. Philip Randolph.”[5]

The media, of course, praised White Southerners. Virginia’s football players voted unanimously to play the game, and, reportedly, none of the players, students, or fans made Pierce feel uncomfortable. The school president pleaded with students to demonstrate that democracy could be a reality in the South. Besides, what did Virginians truly have to lose? The physical contest between North and the South—Southern teams historically looked at these games as an extension of the lost war—was an easy mark for Virginia. Harvard stood no chance, and they only had to let one Black man player. The other Black fans at the game that day, remained in segregated seating. People only saw the gesture of goodwill. Virginia represented a new South. The bar was set low.

But in that same city where Pierce broke the color barrier, and on those same streets he walked unmolested, nearly seventy years later, White terrorists marched to protect a way of life Pierce and White Virginians supposedly stopped. What happened in those seventy years? Nothing happened.

Although Virginia played the game, and fans didn’t bother Pierce, Virginians did not change their customs. They hung onto their ornaments of hate. Nooses hung around trees with signs that read, “For the first damn Yankee that touches this flag.”[6] Even at that celebrated game, more than 1,000 confederate flags waved from fans’ hands, and more flags were draped around the stadium. Of note, only one America flag was displayed that day. Moreover, the Virginia band, which had three Confederate flags, played the Star-Spangled Banner once, but played Dixie — the crowd’s favorite song — throughout the game. And the Confederate monuments that Chet Pierce had to see on his way to the stadium, still stand. That’s the problem. Sports did not save the South. As Doc Young concluded in his piece about the event, “It’s progress, men! And, you can’t mistake it! But—the time has not arrived for collective shouting and all-out handclapping because there is still a James Crow sitting in the seat of the South—exalted by some and scorned by the good thinkers. Sports are doing their share. It’s up to the politicians, the educators, the men and women in the streets—even the sharecroppers, suh—to get together and see what can be done about the Bill Williams and Chet Pierce who only want a chance to get into the LINEUP of those who earn and eat, who want a chance to live as men and women.”[7]

Young knew that sports had a small part to play, but one-off situations like Pierce getting to play a game in Virginia would not solve the problem. White Southerners could pat themselves on the back for a singular moment while never having to give up their privilege of that their hateful monuments represent. And they continued to do so. The Virginia football team finally integrated in 1970, and today Black athletes represent the majority of the top talent in big-time college football, but the statues still stand. While it’s important to see a Black athlete break a barrier, or a White player touch a Black man as he protests, this won’t solve societies’ race problem. In the end, White Americans will have to give up their racist monuments and the privileges they protect.

Louis Moore is an Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University. He is the author of two forthcoming books, I Fight for a Living, which explores boxing, Black manhood, and race in America from 1880-1915, and We Will Win the Day, a book about the Civil Rights Movement and the Black athlete. He is on Twitter at @loumoore12 and can be reached at moorelou@gvsu.edu.

Notes:


[1] E.F. Corbett, “Democracy in Action,” Norfolk Journal and Guide, October 18, 1947.
[2] “A Phony Device,” Chicago Defender, October 25, 1947.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Lem Graves Jr., »U of V. Wins, But Dixie Tradition Falls, » Pittsburgh Courier, October 18, 1947.
[5] Doc Young, “Sportivanting,” Cleveland Call and Post, October 25, 1947.
[6] William S. Fairfield, “Sixteen Backs, Confederate Flags, Touchdowns Mar Virginia Episode,” Harvard Crimson, October 14, 1947. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1947/10/14/sixteen-backs-confederate-flags-touchdowns-mar/
[7] Doc Young, “Sportivanting,” Cleveland Call and Post, October 25, 1947.

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