Photo: Legion Field was located in a Birmingham black neighborhood, but the only black people permitted in the stadium were those working the game.
The frame of reference of today’s college football players dates merely two decades, meaning it is not necessarily unusual to see African-American Ruffin McNeal lead East Carolina into a bowl game as the Pirates’ head coach.
But such a moment is significant when it's the Birmingham Bowl, especially for someone of the 56-year-old McNeill’s generation and older. He experienced segregation as a kid in in Lumberton, N.C., before Dixie joined the Union as a result of the Civil Rights movement.
McNeill, East Carolina’s fifth-year head coach, is preparing his players with X’s and O’s to face Florida in Saturday's Birmingham Bowl in his role as a coach. But coaches also teach, and the son of two teachers said he felt a responsibility to educate his athletes on the meaning of “Birmingham” to the Civil Rights movement.
“It’s an honor to be a part of any bowl game, period,” McNeill said. “But to coach in Birmingham, it’s important for me to expose our players to the history of the Civil Rights movement. I want them to understand history.”
McNeill points to the path cleared for him by pioneering coaches, including NFL Senior Advisor Jimmy Raye, one of the first black assistant coaches in major college football and the NFL. He also was one of the NFL’s first coordinators as an offensive coordinator in 1983 during a 35-year NFL career.
Raye, who attended segregated E.E. Smith High along with McNeill’s uncle in Fayetteville, N.C., launched his coaching career after playing quarterback at Michigan State. He was the South’s first black quarterback to win a national title in 1966.
“It’s gratifying to know that black assistant coaches are now being given an opportunity to become a head coach,” Raye said. “It’s different than when I was coming along and we were basically denied the opportunity to be considered. Hopefully the trials and tribulations we endured are paying off for this generation.”
Raye added some assistant coaches also know little about segregation. Michigan State alumnus Ernest Green, Raye’s long-time friend, is a Civil Rights icon as one of the Little Rock Nine. He was the first black student to graduate from Little Rock’s Central High, where President Eisenhower sent U.S. Army troops to the Arkansas school to enforce desegregation in the 1957-58 school year. Green echoes the coaches.
“It’s a constant education process,” Green said. “It’s a different world now. It’s hard for younger people to even fathom the segregation that took place just 50 years ago.”
Birmingham is where public safety commissioner Bull Connor turned loose policemen, fire hoses and police dogs on peaceful black demonstrators – most of them teen-agers and school children -- in May 1963. Birmingham was known as “Bombingham” for the 17 black churches and black homes bombed between 1957 and 1963, including four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Such violent moments, shown nightly on national television newscasts, were a turning point in gaining the nation’s attention and support of the Civil Rights movement.
Three months after Bull Connor unleashed the police in Birmingham, Martin Luther King delivered his “I have a Dream Speech” in Washington, D.C.
Two years later, the Selma to Montgomery March in Alabama, known as “Bloody Sunday” and depicted in the new Hollywood movie “Selma,” took place. The events led to the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act under President Johnson. As is said about history, if we don't know where we've been how can we know where we're headed?
“They don’t know about the struggles,” McNeill said. “I’ll do my best to teach them. There are still struggles in 2014, so you have to know how to handle adversity. I talk about how to present yourself and how to carry yourself.”
The Birmingham Bowl is played at deteriorating Legion Field, which was known as “The Football Capital of the South” in its heyday as a symbol of segregated football. Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s all-white teams that won national titles in 1961, 1964 and 1965 used it as one of its home stadiums. Thom Gosson, one of Auburn's first black players, grew up in Birmingham near Legion Field. He spoke about how his father hated Alabama's game day; the only black people in the stadium were those working.
Jim Murray, a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, traveled to Birmingham 1961 to expose Alabama football’s tacit support of segregation. He was concerned about reports the Rose Bowl would exploit a loophole in its contract with the Big Ten to invite Alabama to face integrated UCLA, whose black players said they would not take the field against Alabama.
Murray wrote Birmingham is “the place where, when they say “Evening Dress,” they mean bring a bed sheet with eye holes. And bring your matches. We’re lighting a cross.”
Alabama admitted its first black students in 1963, but Bryant waited until 1971 to dress his first two black players in a varsity game. Five Southeastern Conference schools fielded desegregated rosters before Bryant at Alabama.
At the same time southern schools slowly added black players, Michigan State head coach Duffy Daugherty hired Sherman Lewis in 1969 and Jimmy Raye 1972 among the first black assistant coaches in major college football. They had played for Daugherty as members of his Underground Railroad -- black players recruited from the segregated South that included College Football Hall of Famers Bubba Smith, George Webster and Gene Washington. They also coached in the NFL.
When Raye joined the San Francisco 49ers, there were only three other black assistants in the 28-team NFL. By 1983, Los Angeles Rams head coach John Robinson named Raye one of the first black offensive coordinators in the NFL.
Raye was a mentor to many black coaches entering the league. They included Tony Dungy, a fact he acknowledged as the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts in 2006.
It should be noted that Bowling Green head coach Dino Babers was another African-American working a game this bowl season in a Civil Rights landmark city. The Falcons beat South Alabama in the Raycom Media Bowl played in Montogmery, Ala., where Rosa Parks sparked the bus boycotts.
“Jimmy is a ball coach,” McNeill said. “He’s one of the leaders who cleared a path for coaches like me. He’s meant so much to this business. Coaches like Jimmy Raye and (Grambling’s) Eddie Robinson showed how you conduct yourself and handle yourself in this business. They’re the reason I can coach a game in Birmingham.”