Alabama Football: Reflections on the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday

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Alabama Football:  Reflections on the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday
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John Mitchell is among the best in the business.

This past week's AFC divisional playoff game pitted two Alabama alums against each other. But Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome and Pittsburgh's John Mitchell are linked in other ways as well.

"Why," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once asked, "should I have to fight for rights that should have been mine by birth?"

Rights such as the right to vote, the right to petition the government and equal protection under the law had been denied for black Americans despite the legal end of slavery a hundred years earlier.

For young and talented black athletes in the 1960s, reaching the field in SEC football events was also denied to them. The best of them played in the historically black colleges such as Grambling and Southern and Morehead and Jackson State.

Alabama's all-white squads won championships in the 1960s, but one team, the 1966 squad, may have been snubbed because of the lack of integration by the Tide and other Southern teams.

While 'Bama basketball had been integrated by C.M. Newton in the late '60s, the football team remained solidly white.

The social and professional pressures on and climate surrounding Paul Bryant and the program would have caused a near-riot if black players were part of the team.

In fact, in an effort to push the integration of the football team, a group of black attorneys instigated a lawsuit to force coach Bryant's hand. The lawsuit, filed in 1969, was dropped in the early 1970s.

Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Newsome's team faced Mitchell's defense last week in the NFL playoffs.

Meanwhile, Kentucky became the first school to have black players on the team. According to one source, "Kentucky may have initiated the integration of college football in the Deep South, but a game played by the University of Alabama made it acceptable."

As is the case with most Alabama fans, it took play on the field to convince them that change was needed. The famous game in September 1970, USC, led by Sam “Bam” Cunningham, defeated Alabama in Birmingham, 42-21.

The magnitude of the loss caused many to reevaluate using black players. But Bryant had already made up his mind. In the stands that day was a black transfer player Bryant had already signed to play at Alabama.

The rest is Alabama and college football history. Without the contribution of black players, Alabama football would not be Alabama football.

And many of the black players Bryant brought to Tuscaloosa went on to make major contributions to the college and pro games.

That first black player, John Mitchell, (Alabama, '72), is the defensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sylvester Croom (Alabama, '75), became head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Ozzie Newsome (Alabama, '77), is general manager of the Baltimore Ravens.

And there are countless other men of quality, black and white, who were molded, in part, by their experiences as part of the Crimson Tide, men who are giants in all industries and sectors of life.

Today we not only can't imagine Alabama without black players, but we also don't even see a difference between black and white.

All we see is crimson.

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