Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980

Article excerpt

Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980. By Charles H. Martin. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010. Pp. xxiv, 374. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, notes, index. $95.00, cloth; $30.00, paper.)

Charles Martin has written a comprehensive history of the desegregation of major college football and basketball programs, arguing that social and cultural factors largely influenced by national impulses slowly erased the color line on the field of play. Martin also suggests that desegregation in college athletics helped transform southern white attitudes about race. The book takes a largely chronological approach, beginning with the rise of Jim Crow laws in the 1890s and traversing the better part of the twentieth century. Martin depicts the evolutionary change of college athletics by highlighting three important periods. The first stretched from 1890 to 1929. During this time, although some northern universities allowed African Americans to join their teams, they often kept black players from participating in contests against southern schools. This arrangement, known as "the Gentleman's Agreement," indicated the importance northern schools attached to honoring the color line. Northern universities, like their southern counterparts, considered college athletics to be the preserve of white men.

The second period identified by Martin ran from 1929 until 1950. Intersectional games increased in number during this time due to the desire of southern institutions for higher national rankings. Though many northern athletic squads continued observing "the Gentlemen's Agreement," an increasing number began challenging it and insisting that their African- American athletes be allowed to participate in the games. Affected by the democratic fervor tied to the national struggles against Nazism and fascism, northern officials increasingly maintained that black players had the same right to participate in intercollegiate competition as their white counterparts.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, northern institutions abandoned "the Gentlemen's Agreement" altogether and demanded that black players be allowed to play. The civil rights movement had a profound impact on the racial attitudes of most Americans and motivated many to seek the eradication of Jim Crow. …