"Breaking the Plane": Integration and Black Protest in Michigan State University Football during the 1960s

By Smith, John Matthew | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

"Breaking the Plane": Integration and Black Protest in Michigan State University Football during the 1960s


Smith, John Matthew, Michigan Historical Review


Before top-ranked Notre Dame played second-ranked Michigan State University (MSU) in November 1966, the media built up the contest as "the game of the century." It was the first time in college-football history that the top two teams would meet so late in the season. Millions of college-football fans anticipated what they hoped would be "the greatest battle since Hector fought Achilles." (1) Equally remarkable was the racial makeup of each team: Michigan State would start twelve black players while Notre Dame had only one. By 1966, MSU fielded so many black players that the team was often compared to those of Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Grambling, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical, and Morgan State. (2) For Michigan State star player Charles "Bubba" Smith, a black Texas native who had never played in an integrated stadium until he went to college, this would be the pinnacle of his college career. If Smith symbolized Michigan State football, Jim Lynch, a white Irish-Catholic Ohioan and All-American linebacker, epitomized the kind of player for whom Notre Dame fans were used to cheering. At a pep rally two days before the game, on Notre Dame's pristine campus in South Bend, Indiana, forty-five hundred students and fans flooded the old field house as the marching band played the school's fight song. With chants of "cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame" ringing from the rafters, the overwhelmingly white male crowd hanged Bubba Smith in effigy next to a sign that read "LYNCH 'EM." (3)

Coaches and athletes were often hanged in effigy by the fans and students of opposing schools, but "hanging" Smith next to a sign that said lynch 'em suggested some mixture of insensitivity and outfight racial bias at Notre Dame. Two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and nearly twenty years after Jackie Robinson broke major-league baseball's color barrier, the "dummy in the green uniform with a number 95" represented not only Bubba Smith but a rejection of racial equality/Well into the twentieth century lynching had expressed and enforced white supremacy in the South, and the powerful memory of mob rule was reinforced for African Americans in the 1960s when their churches were bombed, or they were clubbed and hosed by police or stoned by white crowds. Notre Dame's rally was emblematic of a dominant white sports culture that resisted integration.

The racial makeup of each school's football team illustrates the uneven progress of the civil fights movement. On one end of the spectrum, Notre Dame represented how hard blacks had to struggle to move beyond token athletic integration at predominantly white institutions. At the other end, Michigan State's squad was an example of what a fully integrated team might look like. While many northern football programs firmly believed that it would be dangerous to play more blacks than whites, in 1966 Michigan State's defense started eight black players and three whites. The offensive backfield started two black running backs and a black quarterback, and the team's two captains were black. In an era that accepted without question the myths that teams could not win by playing more blacks than whites and that black players did not have the intelligence to handle leadership positions, Michigan State's 1965 and 1966 football teams were unlike any others in the prior history of integrated college football.

Not only were Michigan State's teams in those two years fully integrated, but also they were the best that the school's head coach Hugh "Duffy" Daugherty had ever fielded, finishing a combined 19-11 as well as sharing the 1965 national championship. What separated these MSU teams from others in the country was a nucleus of talented black players, many from the South. In the late 1950s Daugherty took advantage of a talent source previously untapped (at least by coaches at primarily white schools) by developing relationships with black high-school coaches at coaching clinics in the South. …

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