Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mondays With Murray: Bedsheets and 'Bama

After watching the Rose Bowl game, we can only hope that Monday's national championship game between Alabama and Clemson will be half as exciting and entertaining.
If you're feeling a little deja vu, it's because this will be a rematch of last year's national championship game. Alabama won that one, 45-40.
To qualify for this season’s big game, No. 1 Alabama (14-0) beat No. 4 Washington 24-7 in the Peach Bowl and No. 3 Clemson drubbed No. 2 Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Today we go back 45 years to when the question of the color of the player mattered more than the talent of the man. In November 1961, Jim Murray traveled to Alabama to watch a game and came home with a story about a racially divided South from a man who spent all his life north of the Mason Dixon line.

Bedsheets and 'Bama

BIRMINGHAM — An airline ticket to romantic places — only this ain't one of them, Birmingham, Ala., showplace of the Deep South, gateway to the Ku Klux Klan.
Your liberal friends have told you about it — the place where, when they say "Evening Dress," they mean a bed sheet with eyeholes. And bring your matches. We're lighting a cross.
The bombed-out houses aren't the work of the enemy. White male Americans are the enemies of America here. The Constitution is being torn in half by people whose ancestors helped to write it.
It doesn't make any sense. It's worse than un-American. It's un-human. The water fountains in the airport jar you. "Colored only." The pretense that the world is divided into people and non-people. If you don't notice them, eat, drink or go to school with them, they're not there.

A Question Remains Unanswered

"It ain't color," a man stubbornly tells you. "If it is, how come an American Indian or an Indian Indian is accepted?" It's a good question. How come, neighbor? A man can stick a turban around his forehead or a feather in his hair and he can drink out of your fountain.
I came down to Birmingham not to find social injustice but to cover a football game. But the cross-currents of our time are such that the two are inter-related.
Alabama, a football team that has only people on it — not a single non-white player — has become the nation's top-ranked team. Despite the fact the polls that put them there are as meaningless as a baby's gurgle, it is an affront to the disciples of desegregation. An all-white team has no business being No. 1. Neither has an all-colored team, although that, ironically, would be highly acceptable to the tyros of tolerance.  The truth is, either one is a denial of democracy.

Hysteria Is Now Setting In

Citadels of prejudice have been crumbled by athletics. It is the proudest chapter of its history. Now, hysteria sets in. The prowess of the Alabama team threatens to turn the pages back. "We won't play with those white folks until they come to the 20th century," comes the word from the coast.
One hundred years later, there is still no stillness at Appomattox. All the war has proved is all that any war proves: You cannot conquer the mind with a bayonet.
But there is another side to Birmingham. The quiet people are stirring. The babble in the hotel, the Bankhead, named after a family distinguished in statesmanship and the theater, is made by old men in trifocals and their wives in mink. "War-r-r wagle!" they shout, an Auburn shout. A meaningless shout from a man made a sophomore again by Bourbon.

World That No Longer Exists

The truth is, this is not their world anymore. They do not understand anything they cannot buy with dollars or punish with pink slips — where people do not keep what is called "their place." Their place is on their knees. "Go, Bama, go" shout these overaged and overprivileged. Go where? Not to Pasadena. To New Orleans. To a charade — a mummers' parade. A toast to a dead Empire. Lift a glass to a world that no longer exists. Pretend the unreal is real. They're not there, those 25 million non-people. The world is a cotillion, not a deadly, desperate struggle for survival.
A soft rain is fallin' in the streets of Birmingham as the coach, a mammoth man, leans back in his bed in the Tallulah suite of the Bankhead. "Coach Bryant," I ask. "What did you think of the announcement out of UCLA that the colored players would not take the field against your team if it got to the Rose Bowl?"
A silence falls over the room. Outside, a passing car screeches to a stop. "Go, Tide, roll!" shouts a beered-up passenger. Bryant grows thoughtful. "Oh," he says. "I would have nothing to say about that. Neither will the university I am sure." Around the room, writers look down at the floor. But one flushes beet red.
"Tell them West Coast N-lovers to go lick your boots, Bear," he growls, glaring at one of those West Coast N-lovers.
The rest of the room is instantly embarrassed. Fred Russell of the Nashville Banner and Bill Lumpkin of the Birmingham Post-Herald sidle over to apologize. "Forget the remark of that knot-head," they urge fervently. "That's not the attitude."
Thoughtful people in the South are concerned. The South is not being disenfranchised. It has disenfranchised itself. The magnolias are as dead as Jefferson Davis. They would like to go to the Rose Bowl, to take their place in the atomic age, stop the cotillion. (The discussion goes on far in the night. No one gets angry. The bayonets are sheathed.)

First Logical Step Forward

"It would seem like to me," begins Lumpkin awkwardly, "that playing Alabama in the Rose Bowl would be the first logical step toward breaking the barriers down. Did you ever stop to think there's a lot of people here who would be afraid Alabama would lose but that there would be a lot of people that would see that colored boy knock an Alabama hero down and then stop and help him up? We all been expecting this boycott all year. But it does seem short-sighted. Seem like they're pushing us back in our place and how can this help?"
It's also a good question. Can you conquer prejudice with prejudice? Do you punish the "white only" sign by erecting a "colored only" on the Rose Bowl? It's a question that doesn't call for a shot off the hip or the flash of a bayonet. That's been tried.
The tragedy I have found in Birmingham is that the bullies of white supremacy have first cowed and terrified their own people. There are white people in Alabama who need an emancipation proclamation, an escape from fear. Let's think it over. Let's not force them back in those bedsheets. At least not unless we're sure that's they way they want it.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

Jim Murray Memorial Foundation, P.O. Box 60753, Pasadena, CA 91116
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