Texas’ Winning Tradition Emerged From Segregation

By Off the BASN Sports Wire By Juan Castillo
Updated: December 21, 2005

Donnie Little

Donnie Little

TEXAS–The 1969 University of Texas football team’s pulsating 15-14 victory over rival Arkansas, with President Nixon in the stands and a national television audience watching the Game of the Century, is forever burned orange in Longhorns lore.

The team won a national championship, and the game’s stature as a contest for the ages seems only to have increased over the years.

Julius Whittier

Julius Whittier in the early 1970s UT ATHLETICS

The next year, when Texas won its second national title in a row, UT’s team included Julius Whittier of San Antonio, a sophomore lineman on his way to becoming the first black athlete to letter in football at the university. He knows better than most how remarkably different UT and its sports programs were 35 years ago.

On Jan. 4, Whittier will watch an integrated Longhorns team vie for another national crown, led by a quarterback whose race is a mere footnote, if even that.

Justifiably or not, sports teams often serve as the most visible ambassadors of their universities, yardsticks against which entire institutions are measured.

The 35 years that have passed since UT last ascended to the pinnacle of collegiate football frame a period in which the university itself was wrenched from a long history of segregation.

Viewed from the distance of time, the 1969 team’s racial makeup seems a relic, almost unnecessary to point out in today’s integrated society. In its historical setting, however, all-white teams were hardly extraordinary at schools in the South, where the color of one’s skin did indeed matter.

UT didn’t integrate its undergraduate classrooms until 1956, and it barred black students from playing in varsity sports until 1963. Dorms were integrated in 1964.

That a state university could field an all-white team as late as 1969 “lets us know how much we are in the infancy stage of changes,” said Gary Bledsoe, who got his law degree at Texas in 1976 and heads the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“And it should make people take pause, (especially those) who want to maintain that we have reached the pinnacle of diversity.”

Whittier, now 55 and a trial lawyer in Dallas, says that being the only black player on the team “didn’t bother me” and that he was generally treated well by teammates, though he learned years later that except for Billy Dale, none wanted to room with him in 1970.

“He did treat me like a brother,” Whittier says of Dale.

A loquacious man not averse to making a joke at his own expense, he bats away any suggestion that he was a pioneer. The word implies long suffering, and UT was like a second birthplace, he explains, adding, “The larger world opened up to me” there.

Dale, now a manufacturer’s representative living in Austin, says Whittier “opened up a bunch of horizons for me, too. He helped me look at the world from a different dimension, and I’ll always respect him for that.”

“By the second year, everybody on that team respected him,” Dale continued. “He was a great guy.” Taken together, the college roommates’ comments hold up a mirror to the ability of sports to effect social change.

‘Change came slowly’

According to published accounts, UT regents lifted the ban on black athletes in 1963 under pressure from students and faculty.

But the university and the Southwest Conference did not quickly put black students on the playing fields.

“It was one of those things where in the 1960s, change came slowly,” said Bill Little, an assistant sports publicist for the university in 1969 and now a special assistant to Coach Mack Brown.

In 1967, another black student, E.A. Curry, made the UT freshman team as a “walk-on,” without a scholarship. Grades sidelined him.

And in 1968, Leon O’Neal II became the first black person to receive a football scholarship to the University of Texas, but he left after a year.

Whittier came to Texas with reservations. He recalls family friends asking his parents to consider whether a young black man could get a fair shot at starting on the UT football team. Given the times, it was not an unreasonable question.

“While the university had officially changed their policy and six years go by and they haven’t done anything, sure there’s reason to doubt,” said Whittier, who actually joined the team in 1969, though National Collegiate Athletic Association rules then didn’t allow freshmen to play on the varsity squad.

Whittier said he asked then-Coach Darrell Royal whether he would get a fair shot at starting.

“He said, ‘Yup.’ He was a straight-shooter,” said Whittier, who became a starter his junior year.

“That was the candor that seemed to belie the stories we’d heard about UT being the racist hellhole,” Whittier continued. “I soon found out that there were probably a lot of racists on campus, but there were far more people who gave a damn about you as an individual as opposed to the color of your skin.”

Royal, who coached UT to national championships in 1963, 1969 and 1970, said he tried hard to recruit black athletes, but “they didn’t want to come.” UT’s reputation among blacks in Texas was abysmal, a stigma Royal and many people trace to a legacy of segregation and slowness to change.

“You just had to say (to prospective recruits and their parents), ‘That’s the way it was, but that’s not the way it is now,’ you know,” Royal said. “Now it’s not even a topic (in recruiting), thank goodness.”

Whittier opened doors for others. In 1971, the Longhorns recruited the state’s premier running back, Roosevelt Leaks. Earl Campbell, one of the most beloved players in Longhorns history, came aboard in 1974.

The days when Texas was criticized for not recruiting high-profile black athletes were over.

Moving forward

When UT allowed black students to play on its sports teams, the country as a whole was in the last steps of a painful, lurching metamorphosis that slowly resolved civil rights questions.

A seminal moment in the struggle to open UT’s doors occurred in 1946, when Heman Sweatt sued the university after being denied admission to the Law School because he was black. In 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Law School’s segregation policy.

The Sweatt decision and the Brown v. Board of Education decision four years later, ending the “separate but equal” doctrine, led to the integration of all UT classrooms in 1956.

But change was glacierlike in the 1950s, too, and historical accounts from the ensuing decades are filled with stories of bigotry and racial tension.

Going to UT was a lonely, isolated experience for a black man in the 1960s, said Gary Bledsoe’s cousin, Horace Bledsoe, a retired nuclear physicist who got his doctorate there in 1971.

In lecture halls, white students got up and walked away if he sat next to them, and white faculty members ignored him, he said.

“If I was successful in making an appointment to see a professor, they would talk to you, but they wouldn’t look at you,” Bledsoe said.

Attending UT games in the 1970s and ’80s could be a decidedly unpleasant, anger-inducing experience, as some fans vented at black players such as quarterback Donnie Little, said Gary Bledsoe.

“I’d be in the stands, and people would be using the n-word and all kinds of things,” said Bledsoe, who unsuccessfully tried out for the football team as a walk-on in 1971.

Bledsoe and Whittier say the civil rights movement and integration of sports teams undoubtedly led to changes in both arenas.

“It might have been the civil rights movement or development of our constitutional system influenced football, or football pressed and had a hand in redirecting our social concept of ourselves as Americans,” Whittier said.

After integration, said Bill Little, the former UT sports information director, one of his best days on the job was when someone would ask what the ratio of African American and white players was on the team.

“And we didn’t have a number, because it didn’t matter anymore,” he said.

Integration of sports teams is but one important embodiment of progress.

“We still haven’t gotten where we need to be,” Bledsoe said. “It’s just good to see we’ve gotten people who’ve come along that are allowing people to accept and move forward.”

This year, UT named a vice provost to lead efforts to improve diversity, a reminder that improving race relations is a work in progress.

The creation of the position was recommended by a university task force formed in response to a series of racially charged incidents, including one in which vandals threw eggs at a campus statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.