A Half Century Ago, Georgia Tech Made a Racial Stand That Changed College Football Forever

Fifty years ago this month, an earthquake of change rattled through college football when the University of Pittsburgh participated in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans against Georgia Tech. At the time Pittsburgh had one black player named Bobby Grier.

Governor Marvin Griffin

The selection of Pittsburgh to play in the Sugar Bowl caused an uproar in Georgia. Governor Marvin Griffin asked the state board of regents to prohibit Georgia Tech from playing in a football game in which a black player would be on the field. In a telegram to the board, Griffin wrote, “The South stands at Armageddon. The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle. There is no more difference in compromising integrity of race on the playing field than in doing so in the classrooms. One break in the dike and the relentless seas will rush in and destroy us.” A headline in the Atlanta Journal echoed the governor’s call. It read simply, “Ban Interracial Sports.”

But 2,000 Georgia Tech students marched on the state capitol building in Atlanta demanding that the team be permitted to play. Georgia Tech players and head football coach Bobby Dodd had no problem playing a team with a black player and adamantly demanded to go to New Orleans. At a hastily called meeting of the board of regents Georgia Tech president Blake Van Leer told the members of the board, “Either we’re going to the Sugar Bowl or you can find yourself another damn president of Georgia Tech.”

The regents agreed to permit the team go to New Orleans where it won the game 7-0. After the game, a banquet was held at the segregated St. Charles Hotel. Several Georgia Tech players made a point to sit with Bobby Grier. It was the first time that a black man had ever sat down to dinner at the hotel.

Grier graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and served in the Air Force for 11 years. He then spent 28 years as an administrator for the Community College of Allegheny County. He retired in 1998. Now 73 years old, he lives in suburban Pittsburgh.

Fifty years later the Georgia Tech football team has 79 players on athletic scholarships. Fifty-three of those players, or 67 percent, are black.


Copyright © 2006. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. All rights reserved.