On May 9th, thousands of high school students, including myself, took the Advanced Placement United States History exam in order obtain college credit. The course focuses on events from the colonial settlement of America to the Clinton Administration of the 1990s. One of the more prominent subjects of the course is the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It discusses how influential leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Medgar Evers, and many more helped to end segregation and achieve equal right for all minorities in America.
To my dismay, the course ignores the role that athletics played in the desegregation of American society. Jackie Robinson’s breaking of MLB’s color barrier is likely the first event that comes to mind as he altered the way that Americans viewed blacks, specifically black athletes. Robinson’s achievement certainly should not be overlooked, but in some circumstances, it did pales in comparison to the impact that USC fullback Sam Cunningham made in just one game against the University of Alabama.
On September 12, 1970, Sam “Bam” Cunningham and his USC teammates traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to face Bear Bryant’s University of Alabama football team in a primetime matchup. Like all prominent college football teams in the Deep South, Alabama was all white. While segregation was beginning to crumble in other parts of the country, most white Southerners did not want to see blacks participating in their religon, also known as football.
During that memorable night, Sam Cunningham torched the Crimson Tide defense, rumbling for 135 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries, as the Trojans humiliated the Tide 42-14. Alabama coach Bear Bryant saw the writing on the wall, and after the game, he allegedly asked Cunningham to stop by the Alabama locker room. Addressing his all-white squad, Bryant pointed to Cunningham and said “Men, this is what a football player looks like.”
Cunningham’s performance against the Tide is regarded as an important factor in convincing the University of Alabama and its fans to allow Bryant to begin recruiting black players. The following season, 1971, Alabama’s roster contained three black players. Once the legendary Bear Bryant began recruiting black players, the other SEC coaches were quick to follow suit. Just like that, segregation in Southern college football was over.
Jerry Claiborne, a Bryant assistant at the time, said, “Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.”
Claiborne’s statement could not be any more true. A few years after Cunningham’s legendary performance, all of the SEC schools had rosters with black players on it. These players now had the opportunity to either play in the National Football League or earn their college degrees. The latter was seldom available to blacks due to segregation and the poor financial situation for many families. Athletic scholarships for black paved the way for better jobs through education at the university level. Without Cunningham’s legendary performance the integration of Southern football might have taken place ten years later.