Fifty years ago: A basketball title and a school boycott for Chicago

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Captain Jerry Harkness holds the NCAA championship trophy after Loyola nipped Cincinnati on March 23, 1963. To his left, coach George Ireland.
  • courtesy Loyola Athletics
  • Captain Jerry Harkness holds the NCAA championship trophy after Loyola nipped Cincinnati on March 23, 1963. To his left, coach George Ireland.
With time expiring and his team down two, Jerry Harkness took a short jumper. This was on a March evening 50 years ago, in Louisville's Freedom Hall; the game was the NCAA championship. Harkness was the captain and leading scorer for Chicago's Loyola Ramblers, who were trying to upend the Cincinnati Bearcats, the champions the previous two years. Swish. The Ramblers, down 15 with less than 13 minutes left, had sent the game to overtime. The game was tied and the clock winding down again in overtime when Harkness's teammate, Vic Rouse, banked in a rebound, and Loyola prevailed, 60-58.

Quite a thrilling way to win a title, but the game was significant beyond that. Harkness, Rouse, and two of Loyola's other starters were black, as were three of Cincinnati's starters. Seven African-American starters out of ten would hardly be unusual today, but in 1963, college coaches were still observing an unwritten rule: don't start more than two black players.

In his new book, Ramblers, Mike Lenehan tells the story of that Loyola team, a story that's as much about race and integration as about basketball.

College sports were headed toward integration anyway, but the Ramblers and the Bearcats hastened the process. Loyola's coach, George Ireland, wasn't a civil rights activist; he cared about the civil rights of players who could help his teams win. (He also wasn't beloved by his players. "George didn't see color," Jack Egan, the team's lone white starter, said at Ireland's funeral in 2001. "He hated all of us the same.")

After Loyola and Cincinnati showed how successful teams could be by playing the most talented players, regardless of their color, other coaches decided to disregard the unwritten rule as well. Between 1962 and 1975, the percentage of Division I teams with black players doubled, from 45 to 92, and the overall proportion of black players more than tripled, from 10 percent to 34 percent.

In the book's epigraph, Lenehan quotes a Georgia state senator named Leon Butts, who said in 1957: "When negroes and whites meet on the athletic fields on a basis of complete equality, it is only natural that this sense of equality carries into the daily living of these people."

Butts was warning against integration, not arguing for it. "To him it was doomsday," Lenehan says. "To me, it's the moral of the story. I think he was correct." Basketball "forces you to see your opponent, or your teammate, as a guy who is just like you—he speaks your language, he knows the same game you know."

Do sports diminish the prejudices of fans as well as players? Lenehan thinks so. When the team you pull for becomes integrated, "a little bit of your prejudice has got to be worn away. Sure, some people would watch Jackie Robinson and still feel they were superior to him. But that's not the way my father watched him. He loved the guy. And it had to have an effect on the way he looked at the races."

Lenehan was editor of the Reader for many years, and so for a long time he was my boss. We're also friends, and I read and commented on parts of his book as he was drafting it. It's not an unbiased opinion, then, but I found Ramblers gripping and revealing.

Much of its power comes from the stories told by the players—stories that remind us that progress on integration is easier on courts and fields than off. Harkness was drafted by the Knicks, but soon was cut. He got a job as a salesman for Quaker Oats and was transferred back to Chicago. Less than two years after he led Loyola to the title, he and his wife tried to rent an apartment in Edgewater, not far from the Loyola campus. The landlord "didn't want blacks in the building," Lenehan writes. Harkness and his wife ended up on the black south side.

There are heartening stories as well. George Wilson, who's African-American, played center on that Cincinnati team but grew up on Chicago's west side, where he was a star center for Marshall High. He told Lenehan that when he was in eighth grade—this was in the mid-1950s—he and a friend used to go every month to movie theaters downtown. After the movie they'd eat at the counter in the Walgreens at State and Lake. "We didn't see any other black people there except us," he said.

Wilson and his friend would have a sandwich and a milk shake, then share a slice of apple pie. "We were just as neat as could be," he recalled. "After a while, all the waitresses and the managers at that Walgreens, who were all white, they would look forward to us coming in, sitting there, and they would ask us questions. How did it go this month? How are your classes? How are your grades? And that one piece of apple pie kept getting bigger and bigger. I don't know what went on in those people's minds, but...instead of prejudging us as two little black fellas who are gonna come in here and steal everything, or throw everything around, [they] just let us prove how we're gonna be. You know, they treated us like their sons."

Lenehan will talk about Ramblers at 6 PM Wednesday in the fourth-floor auditorium at East-West University, 816 S. Michigan.

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The same year that Loyola advanced the cause of racial integration in college basketball, officials of the Chicago Public Schools were doing their best to keep the city's schools safely segregated. Black neighborhoods were overflowing in 1963, and their schools were overcrowded. There was room in schools in adjacent white neighborhoods, but rather than transfer black kids into those schools, the superintendent, Benjamin Willis, put them on double shifts and crammed them into mobile units next to their schools.

Marchers downtown on October 22, 1963. They were protesting policies of schools superintendent Benjamin Willis that maintained segregation.
  • Gordon Quinn/Kartemquin Films
  • Marchers downtown on October 22, 1963. They were protesting policies of schools superintendent Benjamin Willis that maintained segregation.

That fall, civil rights leaders here sponsored a one-day boycott, and 225,000 students—most of them black—stayed out of school. More than 200,000 parents and students marched from their neighborhoods downtown, on City Hall and the offices of the Board of Education.

"We are protesting the growing school segregation in Chicago," the boycott's organizers, the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, said in a statement. "Contrary to the U.S. Constitution . . . contrary to the course of federal court action, and contrary to all decency, the school system contrives to keep children apart on grounds of race. Inferior education is the inevitable result of racial segregation."

Kartemquin Films, producers of the extraordinary Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, is making a documentary for this fall, '63 Boycott, about that protest. Gordon Quinn, who will direct the film, was a University of Chicago student then; he followed marchers from the west side downtown, and two others filmed marches from the south and north sides. The film's producers have recently interviewed some of the boycott participants, but would like to talk with more. Participants can reach them through this website.

'63 Boycott aims to show the protest's impact and legacy. Quinn says the boycott propelled many into civil rights activism—it was the first protest for most of the student participants. The boycott didn't achieve its goal, however. Willis, the chief target, remained superintendent for another three years, and the schools never integrated. But if Quinn and his colleagues are able to get the kind of illuminating stories from participants that Lenehan got for Ramblers, it'll be a fascinating film.

Steve Bogira writes about segregation on Thursdays.

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