A True Trail Blazer

By Kareem Copeland
Updated: January 24, 2006

MISSISSIPPI — Not every story detailing the civil rights movement is a tale of terror.

That, however, does not make those events any less important. Such are the chronicles of Wilbert Jordan Jr. — the first black student-athlete at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“I really can’t give any horror stories,” Jordan said. “I’m not telling you it was perfect, but it was tolerable.

“There were maybe fraternity guys who would light a sheet of paper on fire and slide it under your door or beat on your door — things like that. No one threw a brick through your window, wrote go home… or protested at the doors of the coliseum.”

Jordan, a Waynesboro native, walked on the freshman basketball team for the 1968-69 season and became a scholarship player for the 1969-70 school year. Jordan was the first black basketball player at Southern Miss, Ole Miss or Mississippi State.

He explained that he didn’t garner the attention as other black student-athletes in the South because Southern Miss was considered “kind of a stepchild” to Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Jordan wasn’t out to make a statement; he just wanted to get an education and play ball.

But the events that took place during that period had a definite impact on Jordan. In a strange way, they made it easier to accomplish his goals.

Jordan noted the murder of Civil Rights leader Vernon Dahmer in 1966.

Dahmer’s home and business in northern Forrest County was firebombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan because Dahmer was actively helping blacks register to vote.

Dahmer, 58, was active in the Forrest County branch of the NAACP at the time, and he died as a result of injuries he suffered in the fire.

“We (black students) had a mission to make sure we were going to succeed against all the odds,” said Jordan, who is a friend of Dahmer’s son, Dennis.

“One or two insults, somebody banging on your door, maybe the professor trying to give you a hard time was minor considering the people who were hung, raped, drug up and down the street. You think we were going to let (that) prevent us from doing the things you were supposed to do?

“There were probably some minor things that I’ve erased from my memory because they were minor compared to what the Dahmers were going through. All I could do is honor their memory by doing the right thing and trying to graduate.”

Being the first

There’s a long-standing joke that says, “You don’t want to be the first black man to do anything.”

However, there’s nothing funny about the message behind the phrase. So, it takes a certain type of individual to overcome that prejudice.

“For a person to have the tenacity to visualize, to apply, to enter, to remain and to complete, it speaks volumes for the complete person,” said Eddie Holloway, dean of students at Southern Miss and a schoolmate and friend of Jordan.

“It’s untold, those things that a person had to endure — those dark moments when they wonder whether they’re making the right steps, when they look around and see that they’re the only person there that looks like them.

“I think it requires a tremendous inner strength, a belief and a power, that is perhaps greater than (their own), to sustain you in those moments that you can’t see and will not see.”

Jordan used that strength to play basketball and excel as a student. He earned both his undergraduate and masters degrees in biology from USM before getting his law degree from Louisiana State University.

Jordan’s journey wasn’t littered with burning crosses and wiping spit out his eyes, but the struggle was ever-present.

“It was always a situation that had an edge to it and an awkward bend to it,” said Alan Lahr, a teammate and longtime friend of Jordan. “I don’t remember a single thing that was over the top. But a lot of little subtle things. It was just a different time.

“Still, you had to admire him for what he did. To take the initiative to (walk on) in a time where they certainly were not recruiting players, was big on his part.”

Help along the way

Even the most courageous people can use a helping hand from time to time.

Jordan received that in a variety of ways. It started with his school-teaching parents, Wilbert Sr. and Mildred, who prepared their son for the rigors of academia.

That was not a given considering that, even today, a preparedness for higher education is an issue for African-American youths. Jordan had to have that basic foundation to ready him for all facets of university life.

Next came the physical education teacher, James Townley, who put Jordan in contact with Southern Miss basketball coach Lee Floyd. Townley got Floyd to come watch Jordan play in some pick-up games, leading to Floyd suggesting that Jordan come try-out for the freshman team.

Floyd gave Jordan a scholarship in 1969.

“You will never find a finer individual,” Jordan said of Floyd. “He made me feel very comfortable, took me to his house for dinner. I got a chance to know his son, Tim (who currently coaches at Southern California).

“Coach Floyd was from El Paso Texas, so I guess he had been around minorities. He didn’t see color. He was a wonderful man, a brave man. He and his wife always took time for me.”

Then there was Lahr. Lahr was one of Jordan’s first white friends at the university, even though Lahr was a year behind Jordan. Jordan explained that he wasn’t necessarily close with all of his teammates.

“There were some ballplayers that had never really been around African-Americans very much,” he said. “There were some comments. I’m sure I wasn’t their best friend. They didn’t invite me to their Christmas party or anything. But by and large I met some nice people there.”

Lahr qualifies as one of those people. He and Jordan remain friends and both live in Baton Rouge. Lahr, who nicknamed Jordan “Skeet”, said that they just bonded.

“We just kind of gravitated to each other,” the Fort Wayne, Ind., native said. “(Race) was something you thought about, but I tend to give everyone more of an even playing field. I just don’t think that’s what he quite got (from everyone). I think that’s what he was looking for in me.”

Jordan said, “Sometimes, some people can help you overcome a lot of this foolishness and he was one of those people.”

The road winds down

Jordan now enjoys life as the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality in Baton Rouge with a staff of 300 under him. He has retired from his position as city prosecutor.

Jordan and his wife, Ruby, have seen four children reach adulthood – (Laten, 30, Wilbert III, 26, Taylor Michael, 18, William Wydell, 34).

“My philosophy is that I never had a bad day, just some better than others,” Jordan said when asked about the advice he gives his sons. “Just be positive about life. You can always get down on yourself.

“The glass is always half-full.”

Jordan humbly downplayed his contributions, but admitted that he has come to appreciate them more as he grows older.

Holloway didn’t hesitate to vocalize what Jordan meant to other African-Americans.

“I think he was a rallying point for athletics,” Holloway said. “For the African-American students on campus, it gave great importance to our presence on campus to have athletic representation in Wilbert.

“We were told, taught and driven to succeed, and to face obstacles as stepping stones. We rallied to each other’s interests and calls. There was a commonality that was a quest for success and achievement.”

The obstacles weren’t always laden in blood and overbearing hate. But those steps of progress were no less vital in creating today’s Southern Miss and society in general.