Trailblazer Grows From Experience

By Michael Hudson
Updated: February 20, 2005

WASHINGTON, DC — Perry Wallace stood in the doorway, wondering what to do. His eye was bruised and bloody, the second half was about to begin, and he didn’t know if he could make himself step onto the basketball court and face the crowd again at Tad Smith Coliseum. This was Oxford, Mississippi, the year was 1968, and Wallace was the first black man to play varsity basketball in the Southeastern Conference.

In the first half, University of Mississippi fans had been merciless, screaming abuse at the quiet sophomore from Vanderbilt. “We gonna kill you, boy,” some yelled. The racist catcalls grew so loud friends could hear them over the radio back in Nashville. Spectators hooted with laughter every time he made a mistake. Then, as the half ended, an Ole Miss player smashed him in the face with an elbow.

The trainer was still working on Wallace when his teammates left the locker room for the second half. He made the long walk back toward the court by himself. At the doorway, he paused. The thought of hundreds of angry white faces washed over him. He had reached a moment of decision: If he was going to succeed, if he was going to defeat racism, he had to do it right then, right there. Alone. Perry Wallace stepped onto the court and took over the game, scoring, rebounding, even driving the length of the floor and making a behind-the-back assist. He finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Vanderbilt won in a rout.

It’s been more than three decades, and Perry Wallace doesn’t talk much about those days. He did his part to help end segregation, used basketball to get a good education, and moved on with his life. Today, he teaches law at American University in Washington, D.C., and is a sought-after expert on securities litigation and international law.

Still, he knows it’s important that people remember the history of the struggle. When he returns to memories of his days at Vanderbilt, he does so not with bitterness, but rather with a sense of survival, a desire to wrench lessons about life from his experience as a sports trailblazer.

Wallace grew up in Nashville, Tenn., at a time when the South was still clinging to the ways of apartheid. “It was segregation with an attitude,” he recalls. “People had an attitude about where you were and what you were – and what they could do to you.”

He dreamed of breaking free. He’d watch NBA games on Saturday afternoons, doing squats in the living room to build up his leg muscles. He thought he’d head north for college. He had plenty of offers. He graduated first in his class at Pearl High School and was a 6-foot-5 force on a basketball team that went undefeated and won the state title the first season black schools played in an integrated post-season tournament.

Then he surprised people by picking a hometown school, Vanderbilt. The university had a good engineering program, and Wallace saw a chance to do some good by breaking barriers. Soon after Wallace made his decision, another black prospect, Godfrey Dillard of Detroit, also agreed to come to Vanderbilt. Wallace and Dillard played together on the freshman team, surviving ugly trips to Mississippi and the SEC’s other Deep South venues. They supported each other as best they could, but didn’t talk much about what they were going through. “This was a horror,” Wallace recalls. “To even let it out and speak the words created the danger that you might actually realize what you had been through.”

Dillard hurt his knee and left school without playing a varsity game. Wallace was alone his first varsity season, feeling like a marked man. He wondered if he was going to be shot as he ran onto the court. He walked a fine line. If he competed too aggressively, violence might erupt. But if he were too tentative, people would call him lazy. He averaged double figures in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore and junior, but his play was inconsistent. He came into his own as a senior, averaging 17.7 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, winning second-team All-SEC honors and the SEC Sportsmanship Award. In the final game of his career, he scorched Mississippi State with 29 points and 27 rebounds.

He’d made it. He’d kept his mouth shut, played hard, sacrificed for Vanderbilt — and for black America. People wanted to paint his years at Vanderbilt as an uncomplicated success story. However, although it was against his nature to make waves, he believed it was time to set the record straight – to speak the truth needed to “make the next steps toward progress.” In the spring of 1970, after that final game, he gave an interview to a newspaper in Nashville. For the first time, he spoke openly about the abuse and isolation he’d suffered. It was a restrained version of his ordeal, but some whites said he’d betrayed the university. Others tried to persuade him it hadn’t been so bad. He was struck by “the arrogance of people telling me what my experience had been and how I should feel about it.”

He was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, played minor-league hoops, and then decided he’d had enough basketball. He took a job with the National Urban League, where he worked for a dynamic black mentor, future U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown. Wallace traveled the country helping community groups raise money and grow. “This was…my healing and my therapy,” he says.

He earned a law degree from Columbia University in 1975, and then filled a succession of noteworthy jobs, including two years as a legislative analyst for D.C. Mayor Walter Washington and six years in the U.S. Justice Department. Now, in addition to teaching at American University, he works as a mediator in securities cases.

As hard as his college days were, he learned from them. Those years helped him develop his sense of self-control and self-reliance. He learned how to fight for what he believed in without getting eaten up with anger. Long ago, Wallace recalls, his parents taught him: “A lot of life consists of moving on in spite of things.”