The Perversion of Conversion

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: February 4, 2009

Flying high in the friendly sky

Flying high without ever leavin’ the ground…noooo…

(Lyrics to “Flyin’ High in the Friendly Sky”— written by Marvin Gaye and part of the landmark production that became the album, “What’s Goin’ On”)

Joe Gilliam

Joe Gilliam

PHILADELPHIA – There was a time when these young Black men were flying high. Brothers like Eldridge Dickey, Joe Gilliam and James “Shack” Harris were Big Men on Campus, equally and justifiably as proud of their academic as well as their athletic futures.

Harris gets drafted to play the position he was born to play in the National Football League by the Buffalo Bills; Gilliam, although drafted in the 11th round of the 1972 NFL Draft, would get the chance to play for a potential powerhouse in the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But Dickey, affectionately known as “De Lawd’s Prayer,” because he always delivered on the gridiron, would become the first Black quarterback to be drafted in the first round – by the Oakland Raiders of the American Football League in 1968.

Harris would experience a modicum of on-field success, but being the first Black anything – especially from a human standpoint – never failed to leave its damage in an unforgiving and unyieldingly racist society.

“Rest of the folks are tired and weary…oh Lord, and have laid their bodies down…”

Gilliam would beat out Terry Bradshaw for the starting quarterback position in 1974, and lead the Steelers to a 4-1-1 record during the early part of the season.

“I go the place where danger awaits me; and it’s bound to forsake me.

So stupid minded…I can’t help it; oh yeah — so stupid minded…but I go crazy when I can’t find it;”

Then, in spite of the fact Gilliam has the Steelers in a winning posture, Coach Chuck Noll benches Gilliam for Bradshaw…

“In the morning, I’ll be alright, my friend…but soon the night will bring the pains, the pain, oh the pain;”

Meanwhile, Dickey is playing his ass off in Oakland; and all indications are he has earned the starting QB slot;

“Flying high in the friendly sky; without ever leaving the ground…”

But the Raiders go with their second round draft choice, Ken Stabler as their starter; who then demote and move Dickey to wide receiver; Gilliam, already hurt by his demotion, was a target of constant criticism in spite of his winning record prior to the benching…

“And I ain’t seen nothing but trouble baby; Nobody really understands, no no (Help me, somebody!) And I go to the place where the good feelin’ awaits me; self destruction in my hand…oh Lord, so stupid minded…”

In spite of having superior skill sets and earning the right to play, Gilliam and Dickey, two of the greatest to every play at Tennessee State University, are humiliated by the actions of their teams, while Harris, who has played in a championship game and led his Los Angeles Rams to a division title, was rewarded with a trade to the San Diego Chargers.

There he died on the bench, and while he never was moved or asked to play another position, the deliberate co-opting of Harris’ skills was equally dehumanizing; especially in his knowing he was better than anything San Diego had playing in front of him at quarterback.

All this probably seemed like a minor aside while Shack is also brazenly chastised by so-called fans as he is witness to his playing career fading to Black…

“Oh and I go crazy when I can’t find it…”

What happens to a man when the rhyme and reason escape his life? When doing everything asked of you – and doing it well to a point where the manifestation of those results cannot equitably be denied – are rendered insufficient, null and void?

“Well I know I’m hooked my friend; to the boy who makes slaves out of men…”

Dickey and Jefferson became such slaves, and although they recovered, the gifts the Fates had blessed them with were selfishly taken away.

It would take Doug Williams’ Super Bowl performance to slap the taste out of the mouths of mainstream media who delighted in the misfortune of Dickey and Gilliam not having a suitable skin tone; and bring to light what many had already known.

That men like Chuck Ealey, Condredge Holloway, J.C. Watts, Warren Moon, Tracy Ham, Roy Dewalt, and Damon Allen had stared into the face of the Gorgon and not been turned to stone. They flew high in spite of attempts to clip their wings and render them unable to soar to the heights they expected and attained.

Harris would go on to survive and thrive as an executive in the NFL, but the memories of what Dickey and Gilliam meant to Black College football will never be forgotten.

And oh believe me flying high in a friendly sky…oh baby, flyin’ high…”