It was Homecoming weekend in Gainesville and LSU was the opponent on that late October day in Gainesville in 1963. The SAE house was on the corner of University and 13th where the Kangaroo station is today, and the Sigma Nus lived in a big mansion where Emerson Alumni Hall stands today. Down at the Florida Theater, the marquee read Put LSU “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
The Florida marching band led the way down University Avenue that Friday at noon but when the Marching 100 of Florida A&M strutted their stuff to the crowd that lined the streets, for a few moments, everybody forgot that the state was still shackled by strict segregation laws. The water fountains and bathrooms in downtown Gainesville still read “White Only” and “Colored Only” and blacks could go to the back door of the Primrose Inn to take food out but they couldn’t sit in the dining room to order a meal.
As backward and out of date as that may sound today, Gainesville was actually considered a progressive city in the south. Our U.S. Senators vowed to fight the good fight of segregation until death in hostile debates in Washington but in Gainesville, UF had integrated in 1958 when George Starke Jr. was admitted to the college of law and in 1959 when Ms. Daphne Duval began attending night classes. Willie George Allen became Florida’s first black graduate in 1962 when he earned his law degree.
That night at Gator Growl, the Marching 100 literally blew the Florida band off the field with a show like nothing we had ever seen. They high stepped. They danced. They played the songs we heard on WAPE in Jacksonville, the hippest station in the nation or so they told us at least 10 times an hour.
They got a standing ovation when their show was finished and the applause continued until they took their seats in the north end zone where a wide alley separated them on either side from the white folks in the stadium. While they were welcome to entertain us, they certainly weren’t welcome to actually sit in close proximity and God forbid if one of them had needed to use the bathroom.
Before the night was over, they were subjected to degrading racial insults from a fraternity competing for the best skit. The skits were the big entertainment at Gator Growl in those days. This was long before the Student Government Association, in its good taste and infinite wisdom, decided that what the crowd really needs the night before the Homecoming game is another MTV comedian talking raunchy sex and throwing out the F bomb a couple hundred times.
The skit that insulted and degraded was supposed to be the University of Florida in the year 1984. Before 1984 actually got here, any talk about the future had to include some sort of reference to Orwell and his book “1984” which was required reading at the most high schools by that time. In their skit, the frat boys took dead aim at the debates about integration. The scenario was 1984 when “Big Brother,” who bore a mysterious resemblance to Dr. J. Wayne Reitz, issued an edict that forced the good, white student population of the University of Florida to attend classes with kangaroos. The inference wasn’t lost on anyone, particularly the uneasy band members from FAMU, sitting a few rows over from where I was sitting with Lang Thomas and a few pals from Westwood Junior High.
Most of the folks in the crowd of some 40,000 at Florida Field saved their heartiest laughs for the frat boys’ rendition of the popular Dusty Springfield song “I Just Want to Stay Here.” Instead of the chorus that we all knew — “I don’t want to go to the party with you” — the frat boys belted out to the lone kangaroo on stage “I don’t want to go to the potty with you.” I heard the stadium roar with laughter, but my eyes were riveted to the FAMU band, close enough that I could see the tears that streamed down so many faces. I saw some of those kids hang their heads. I thought they were probably asking God why? Just what had they done wrong to be subjected to this kind of indignation?
At that moment and for the first time in my life I really understood the cruelty of politics that divided the country over something as trivial and stupid as the color of one’s skin. The old men that were supposed to be our wise, elected leaders in the state of Florida were among those “Dixiecrats” that vowed to fight and whip the Republicans on this issue of equal rights for all people, white and black. That night I looked at those kids from FAMU and wondered what was so wrong with them that they couldn’t eat at the same places and drink from the same places or use the same bathrooms that I use?
When Gator Growl ended in a fireworks show that my next door neighbor Courtney Roberts set off behind the bleachers in the south end zone, I walked out of the stadium, listening to folks singing “I don’t want to go to the potty with you” never caring that they were within earshot of those kids from FAMU who were filing into buses that would take them back to Tallahassee. I found the courage to look at them and didn’t like the sadness I saw in the faces of most or the anger that I saw in the faces of a few others. I wondered where they would stop for dinner since most of the restaurants were white only.
My 12-year-old heart broke that night, one of those moments in life that force you to grow up long before you want to. The world was changing and this was a tough time to be 12. The next day, the lily-white Gators, those same ones that had beaten mighty Alabama and Bear Bryant in Tuscaloosa just two weeks before, were shut out by the lily-white LSU Tigers. Less than a month later, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. I’m 55 now and the two things that have stood out my entire life from 1963 are that night at Gator Growl and where I was and what I was doing when I found out that President Kennedy had been killed.
Now here we are 43 years later and it’s Homecoming week again and again LSU is the opponent. The segregation policies of the 1960s are long gone and Gainesville is still considered a progressive place. Blacks and whites live here in relative harmony. The University of Florida has grown into one of the top academic institutions in the country and my Florida Gators, those same ones that made me wait almost a lifetime before next year finally got here, have a handful of SEC titles and one national championship to their credit. The teams that won all those championships were predominately black, cheered on wildly by a stadium filled to the rafters with mostly white folks.
Just like 43 years ago the Tigers mirror the Gators in their racial makeup only instead of lily-white through and through both these teams are made up mostly of young black men that wouldn’t have been afforded a chance to attend these schools back in the 1960s. Growing up in Gainesville I remember hearing older men debate integration and sports. They agreed that there might come a day when there were black football players playing for the Gators but they also agreed there damn sure would never be a black quarterback.
Saturday, when the Gators and Tigers square off, Florida will start Chris Leak at quarterback and LSU will start JaMarcus Russell, neither one the first black quarterback in school history. The players that back them up, Tim Tebow and Matt Flynn, are both white. All four of them are great kids and all four are talented enough to start. Leak and Russell are the best two quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference. Tebow and Flynn are talented enough to be the best but they are second stringers, playing behind a couple of black kids that not only play the position at a very high level, but conduct themselves on and off the field in such a way that should make everybody very proud.
Leak and Russell are quarterbacks that happen to be black and most people don’t make a big deal of it. We should be way past the day when skin color was considered a requisite for the position, but still, whether you wish to admit it or not, the black quarterback is held to a higher standard. It’s 2006 yet there are damn few stadiums in the country where the white quarterback doesn’t get quite a bit more leeway with the fans than the black quarterback. A white quarterback throws a critical interception and it’s a correctable mistake. A black kid? It may not be the end of the world, but you can see the end of the world from there. It’s been 42 years since Lyndon Johnson put an end to white only drinking fountains in this country but we still have some folks that, if they could, would put a white only sign on the quarterback position.
Fortunately, those folks are a dying breed whose racial attitudes we can only hope will someday make the extinct species list. But until that day comes, there is something we can do about it. If you’re in The Swamp or any other stadium Saturday watching a football game and you happen to hear a comment about the “black” quarterback — no matter whose team he plays for — take a moment and ask the Neanderthal that made that comment to take a moment and look at the players on the field. Point out a black player and then point out a white one but before you do, make sure they’ve both been playing hard and they’re both pretty winded. Now, ask him what color is the sweat pouring down their faces. Trust me, he’ll get the point.