Perry Wallace, Who Broke Basketball Barriers, Didn't Set Out To Be A Pioneer | Nashville Public Radio

Perry Wallace, Who Broke Basketball Barriers, Didn't Set Out To Be A Pioneer

Dec 8, 2014
Originally published on January 13, 2015 6:49 pm

Language advisory: Quotes in this story contain language some find offensive.


Many people are familiar with the big stories of racial integration in sports — Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers, Althea Gibson at Wimbledon. But after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, many lesser-known African American athletes became "firsts" — whether they liked that distinction or not.

"I wasn't interested in being a pioneer, or making history, or doing any of that," says Perry Wallace, who, in 1966, helped break the color-barrier in college basketball's Southeastern Conference, when he played for Vanderbilt University. "That was not — and still isn't, quite frankly — my personality. My attitude was just: Drop me off at Detroit and leave me the hell alone."

Today Wallace is a law professor at American University. His story unfolds in a new biography by Andrew Maraniss called Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.

People love to tell triumphant stories about the heroes of the civil rights era, but a lot of that is "fluff" Wallace says: "It's a gritty, dirty, ugly business. And most people are not up for it, including the people who lead and govern the institutions. That was true back then, as it is true now, on various issues, whether it has to do with violence against women, or any number of other challenges. ... They are around for the celebration, but not around for the hard part."

The hard part for Wallace was away games — that's where the integration effort at Vanderbilt collided with the reality of Southern segregationist support. Nationally, pro-league basketball and baseball were already integrated. But at the college level — most deep South schools were holdouts, refusing even to share the court with black players.

Maraniss says that's the atmosphere Wallace walked into when Vanderbilt traveled to play the University of Mississippi in 1968. Wallace dreaded these trips to the deep South.

The arenas were tiny, Maraniss says, "with crowds that were small enough where you could actually hear what people were saying. So you would have people back in Nashville listening to the games on the radio, including Perry's mother laying in a hospital bed, who could hear what was being directed at Perry."

Wallace says he can still remember the kinds of slurs spat at him: "We're going to kill you, we're going to castrate you ... People are going spit on you ... they're going to lynch you." He remembers being called "the n-word, a coon, a jigaboo."

Wallace he says there's one scene that will stand out forever in his mind: "It is that of what looked like three generations of a family, and all of them were spitting, screaming, calling me names, and threatening me. This was just great sport for them."

He sustained an injury during the game at the University of Mississippi — which brought cheers from the crowd. He says returning to the court after half time couldn't have taken more than 15 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime: "It's like the comedian Dick Gregory said, 'Yeah, I spent four years in Mississippi one night.'"

Games like these took a tremendous emotional toll. Wallace says if he hadn't given himself time to heal, there would have been terrible consequences.

"I would have committed suicide," he says, "like Henry Harris, the second black athlete who played in the SEC, who ran and jumped off a building a few years later. Like Nat Northington, who was the first athlete, period, who just left after about a year or so. But there's no question about it — if you don't think you have to heal after getting beat up, you don't know the basics."

Wallace didn't really have the support of his teammates. Those games, those experiences he survived on his own.

After graduation he went up north — he needed a break, he said. Law school and work with the Justice Department followed before he settled in Washington, D.C.

But his storied season with Vanderbilt and the SEC? Glance around his office and you'd never know it. Wallace doesn't display a single memento from that time — no trophies, framed jerseys or even newspaper clippings.

Maraniss says "it's not the formula story that you might expect" but there is one moment in Wallace's story that he admits has that Hollywood feel.

"In Perry's last game, which was against Mississippi State in Nashville, his last basket of his college career is a slam dunk, which was illegal at the time," Maraniss explains. "It was a game that Perry dedicated to his mother, who had just passed away about a year earlier. And Perry saved the best for last, in many ways, in this game."

"Yeah, that's what I wanted," Wallace adds: "To make a statement. And I had made a promise to my mother, and I kept it best that last game. So I scored — what was it? — 28 points and 27 rebounds. Nobody's ever heard of that. And the pièce de la resistance was the dunk at the end. ... The illegal dunk. And that basically said, well, these segregation laws were illegal laws. They were the law, but they weren't just. And so this is what I think of all those unjust, illegal rules. There it is. Slam dunk."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're all pretty well-acquainted with the big sports stories of racial integration, like Jackie Robinson with the Dodgers or Althea Gibson at Wimbledon. But after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there were many smaller stories of people who had to be the first black whatever, even when they didn't want to.

PERRY WALLACE: No, I wasn't interested in being a pioneer or making history or doing any of that. That was not and still isn't, quite frankly, my personality. My attitude was just drop me off at Detroit and leave me the hell alone.

CORNISH: That's Perry Wallace. Today, he's a law professor at American University. But in 1966, he helped break the color barrier in college basketball's Southeastern Conference, the SEC, when he played for Vanderbilt University. His story unfolds in a new book called "Strong Inside: Perry Wallace And The Collision Of Race And Sports In The South." Wallace and his biographer sat down with me to talk about the realities of desegregation.

I mean, I think there we're all used to sort of feel-good sports movies about integration where the music swells because someone makes some sort of very sweet gesture. But have you sat through some sports integration movies and thought, I wish that's what had happened?

(LAUGHTER)

WALLACE: Well, you - I think you put it so very, very well. There's often so much fluff, and it's just kind of nice music, and it swells up and so on and so forth. But it's gritty, dirty, ugly business, and most people are not up for it, including the people who lead and govern the institutions. That was true back then, as it is now, on various issues, whether it has to do with violence against women or any number of other challenges, which are the same challenges that they faced back then, by the way. And they are around for the celebration, but not around for the hard part.

CORNISH: What was the hard part? Away games. That's where the integration effort at Vanderbilt collided with the reality of Southern segregationist support. Remember, nationally pro-league basketball and baseball were already integrated. But at the college level, most Deep South schools were hold-outs, refusing even to share the court with black players. Wallace's biographer, Andrew Maraniss, says that's the atmosphere Perry Wallace walked into when Vanderbilt traveled to play the University of Mississippi in 1968.

ANDREW MARANISS: Perry travels down to Oxford, Mississippi. And Perry told me, in general, as approaching these trips down to the Deep South, that he looked at them with the deepest sense of dread.

WALLACE: What happened was that in my own mind - and for weeks before and sometimes months before - I'm thinking about that game and wondering what's going to happen because this is the unknown. And the anxiety level rises on the bus going to the plane, on the plane flying down. There's no problem there.

CORNISH: People aren't meeting you at the tarmac - right? - like, at the bus or anything like that.

WALLACE: No, they saved it all for the game.

MARANISS: A lot of these were tiny, little bandboxes of arenas - tiny, little places with crowds that were small enough where you could actually hear what people were saying. So you would have people back in Nashville listening to the games on the radio, including Perry's mother, laying in a hospital bed, who could hear what was being directed at Perry.

WALLACE: We're going to kill you. We're going to castrate you. The N-word, coon, jigaboo - people are going to spit on you. They're going to tell you that they're going to lynch you. And there's one scene that stands out forever in my mind. And it is that of what looked like three generations of a family, and all of them were spitting, screaming, calling me names and threatening me. This was just great sport for them.

MARANISS: And so what happens in this game? In the first half, Perry is hit with an elbow in the face, is bleeding and is temporarily blinded in his eye, and the referees don't call a foul. They don't even call a stop to the game. And so it's not until the next time the ball rolls out of bounds that the trainer and the manager come out to see Perry, walk him across the court as these people are rising and cheering that Perry's been injured, back to the Vanderbilt locker room to be treated. And he remains there at halftime, and as he comes back out, he knows what's about to happen.

WALLACE: See, I'm coming back and having to walk all the way across the court from one end of the court to the other. That period - it might not have lasted any more than 10 or 15 seconds, but it was a lifetime. It's like the comedian Dick Gregory said, I spent four years in Mississippi one night, and I did, too, in that particular night. And in that particular moment, it seemed like a lifetime because they just focused on me, and they rained down on me, and that's what the hatred was like.

CORNISH: Once we've heard stories of civil rights pioneers or people who were at the forefront of integration, we don't hear what happens after. We don't even hear what happens in the time shortly after and what kind of emotional toll that it takes. And was there a time in the year or two after when you realized, like, I'm really struggling?

WALLACE: Oh, absolutely so. And I think, unless one wants to be naive, necessarily so because I wouldn't be sitting here today. I would've committed suicide like Henry Harris, the second black athlete who played in the SEC, who ran and jumped off a building a few years later, like Nat Northington, who was the first athlete - period - who just left after about a year or so. But there's no question about it. If you don't think you have to heal after getting beat up, you don't know the basics. And I understood that, but I did understand that I needed to give myself time to heal.

CORNISH: Wallace didn't really get support from his teammates. Those games, those experiences, he survived on his own. After graduation, he went up north. He needed a break, he said. Law school and work with the Justice Department followed before he settled here in Washington. But his storied season with Vanderbilt and the SEC - glance around his office, and you'd never know it. Perry Wallace doesn't display a single memento from that time - no trophies, framed jerseys or even newspaper clippings. Andrew Maraniss says, it's not the formula story that you might expect.

MARANISS: You know, there was a formulaic ending that was possible. In Perry's last game, which is against Mississippi State in Nashville, his last basket of his college career is a slam dunk, which was illegal at the time. And it was a game that Perry dedicated to his mother, who had just passed away about a year earlier. And Perry saved the best for last in many ways in this game.

WALLACE: Yeah. That's what I wanted - to make a statement. And I had made a promise to my mother, and I kept it best that last game. So I scored - what was it? - 28 points and 27 rebounds. Nobody's ever heard of that. And the piece de la resistance was the dunk at the end.

CORNISH: The illegal dunk.

WALLACE: The illegal dunk - and that basically said, well, you know, these segregation laws were illegal laws. They were the law, but they weren't just. And so this is what I think of all those unjust and illegal rules. There it is - slam dunk.

CORNISH: The book about Perry Wallace, the first African-American basketball player in the SEC is called "Strong Inside." It's written by Andrew Maraniss, and it's out now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.