College Football’s Real Racial Breakthrough Was FAMU vs. Tampa

Nearly 50 years ago—when segregation ruled college football in the South—a transformational game took place, pitting a team led by African-American players against one from a powerhouse that was almost entirely white.

The black team won, and the cult of white supremacy on the gridiron was shattered.

And given football’s powerful cultural influence, the game stands as a landmark in civil rights history.

Many football fans in America will think that the football game in question was the 1970 matchup in Birmingham, Ala., between Coach Bear Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide and the University of Southern California Trojans. And this assumption is reinforced anew by a Showtime documentary, Against the Tide, which suggests that Bryant arranged the game in order to advance the cause of integration.

But that narrative is wrong. The pivotal game in the desegregation of college football had occurred a year earlier, between historically black Florida A&M University, under its legendary Coach Jake Gaither, and the University of Tampa, which was regularly defeating teams from major conferences.

Before a sellout crowd of 45,000, A&M won the game, in what may well have been the largest mass act of desegregation since emancipation. A sportswriter for the St. Petersburg Times, one of the rare Southern newspapers to support the civil rights movement, put the stakes correctly: “They carried Jake Gaither off the football field at Tampa Stadium last night and 63 years of prejudice, confusion and misinformation left with him.”

So why, then, is the Alabama-USC game given undeserved credit? Why is Bear Bryant lifted up as an activist for racial equality? The answers have a lot to do with a certain fondness in the white public for race stories with white heroes.