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The Battle of the Blue-Gray Game

Alabama's segregationist stance butted head-first against the power of television in 1963 and lost.

Blue Gray Game
Halftime at the 1958 Blue-Gray Game.

For more than 60 years, the now-defunct Blue-Gray All-Star Football Classic was Alabama’s premiere contribution to the college football bowl season. The annual game, held in Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl Stadium, featured a roster of senior players against a backdrop that unapologetically adorned itself in the regalia of the Civil War.

From its earliest incarnations the game was available nationally on radio. In 1954, the National Broadcast Company (NBC) began televising the game as well. Since the contest was one of the few held the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve it garnered significant interest. The fact that the teams featured players from schools across the country was another reason to tune in and watch.

As a result, the game provided a unique opportunity for publicity for the state. In the early 1960s this was particularly important due to the impact of the civil rights movement. Beginning with the bus boycott in Montgomery, national news coverage of the state was dominated by episodes of violence as segregationists refused to back down to civil rights protests.

In 1963, the Blue-Gray game became as showdown between power of broadcast television and the forces of segregation. Although the episode is a minor one in the overall story of integration, it is a highly important in one respect; it is a clear example of the role changing economic forces played in the civil rights movement.

Jim Crow Goes Bowling

The issue of integrated games had begun to become an issue for southern schools following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. While the ruling set in motion the process of integration, it also launched a backlash by the segregationist establishment in the deep south states. It didn’t take long for college football to be swept up in things. Since bowl games were the one time of the year that saw all-white southern teams pitted against integrated squads from other parts of the country the flashpoints occurred there.

In 1956, the Sugar Bowl game between the Georgia Tech vs Pitt forced the issue into the forefront of college football. Georgia politicians demanded Pitt recognize the long-standing “gentleman’s agreement” that obliged northern schools to sit black players in inter-sectional contests. The panthers declined and Bobby Greer broke the color barrier for the game.

The matter did not end there. Louisiana promptly passed a law that prohibited all interracial sports contests in the state. Although the legislation was overturned by Supreme Court in 1959, the law’s provision requiring segregated seating was allowed to stand. The color barrier for the Sugar Bowl closed once again. And other southern states began passing their own laws and local ordinances to enforce segregation at athletic contests; both on the field and in the stands.

The Blue-Gray Game was able to skirt these issues even though it recruited northern players to participate by simply not inviting blacks. While the questionnaires filled out by coaches for possible candidates to the game requested no racial information, invariably it would be only white players that were contacted. Additionally, the venue for the contest, the Cramton Bowl, remained whites-only.

George Wallace vs NBC

NBC executives first found themselves dealing with the issue of segregation in 1962 following the election of die-hard segregationist George Wallace as Alabama governor. Initially, the governor-elect had been invited to appear at halftime of the telecast of the Blue-Gray Game. When he arrived, Wallace was informed the appearance had been canceled by NBC.

Reportedly, the network’s New York-based legal department had not cleared the appearance beforehand. NBC later apologized to Wallace and described the decision as a misunderstanding.

Less than a month following the incident, the stakes were raised significantly. On Jan. 14 Wallace was inaugurated as Alabama’s governor promising “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” His intractable stance on the issue set the stage for protest marches in Birmingham months later that gripped the nation.

Scenes of black protesters on Birmingham being attacked by police dogs and blasted with fire hoses were broadcast into the living rooms across the country. The sheer brutality of the authorities response to the protests created an indelible image of the white power structure in the state. The impact of this on local businesses led to the negotiations that ended the marches.

That June, Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door” failed to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama and, in late August the March on Washington took place. The horrific coda to all of this occurred on Sept. 15 when a bomb blast destroyed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls preparing for Sunday school.

Pulling the Plug

Against this backdrop, NBC executives made the decision not to broadcast the 1963 Blue-Gray Game on television or radio and notified organizers on Nov. 7. The network cited the game’s unspoken policy of not permitting black players as the reason for the decision.

Wallace’s response was quick and forceful. He blasted the network’s decision “tragic and irresponsible” and insisted NBC had been pressured to act by unnamed groups.

“Those who pressured and intimidated the sponsors and the network have, as they always do, hurt all races, especially the Negro race with this petty attempt to satisfy their own selfish motives.”

Officials with the Montgomery Lions Club that sponsored the game and the Blue-Gray Association that organized and ran it placed the blame for the cancellation on “Negro organizations,” and specifically named the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) which had organized the Freedom Rides through Alabama several years prior.

The Montgomery Advertiser went even further. In an editorial penned by editor Grover C. Hall Jr., the paper laid the blame at the feet of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acting at the behest of “the brothers Kennedy.” The piece called NBC’s decision not to broadcast the game “a studied chastisement of the State of Alabama” and denounced it as a “punitive expedition against the state’s social order.”

The New York Times saw the situation differently. The paper declared the network’s decision “an example of how corporate influence can be brought on the side of race justice.”

After the Battle

After NBC’s decision was handed down, the Montgomery Lions Club moved to get the network’s permission to broadcast the game to a regional network. Organizers then cobbled together an independent network of eight television stations and 50 radio stations to air the 1963 contest across six southern states. Wallace made a public appeal to pro-segregation Alabama residents to attend the game.

The southern team coached by Charlie McClendon of LSU bested the northern squad coached by Penn State’s Rip Engle, 21-14. Attendance was estimated at 20,000, well under Cramton Bowl’s seating capacity of 27,000.

Just weeks following the game, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling by a three-judge federal panel that struck down a segregated stadium seating law in Louisiana. The Bynum v. Shiro decision effectively swept away legal obstacles to integrating athletic contests in the South.

This ensured the Cramton Bowl was integrated for the 1964 Blue-Gray contest. This condition was sufficient for NBC to permit the national broadcast of the contest although the teams on the field remained all-white. Organizers said they were optimistic the teams would be integrated soon.

“Eventually it’s going to be integrated,” one ‘leading backer’ of the game told UPI. “It’s bound to be in the not too distant future.”

The Power of the Bottom Line

Today college football bowl games are big business. There were 40 last season and every single one of them was available to view, almost all on ESPN. The network shells out more than $600 million to broadcast the College Football Playoff alone and there is enough advertiser dollars out there for ESPN to back a number of the contests itself.

In the 1960s, this kind of largess was unimaginable but the financial impact of a nationally broadcast game was becoming increasingly significant each passing year. Following World War II profits from football games slowly shifted from sales of seats in the stadium to eyeballs glued to the television.

The Blue-Gray Game’s unique time and player makeup drew attention across the country and, as a result, the cameras of one of the only three national networks. Alabama’s segregationist stance imperiled that cozy arrangement.

NBC executives had to know that even the appearance of supporting segregation would gut their ratings over the broad swath of the country. And that meant lost revenue. The Blue-Gray Game organizers knew that losing national coverage would mean a loss of the healthy profits they had gotten used to. These economic realities eventually superseded the demands of die-hard segregationists.

This ugly calculus would repeat over and over across the south throughout the civil rights era. Segregation was a non-negotiable principle until it affected the financial bottom line. Then, suddenly, integration was an acceptable idea.

The 1963 Blue-Gray Game showed this applied to college football. The capitulation to NBC’s demands to allow the game to be aired nationally in 1964 set a real precedent. When the federal government threatened to pull funding to southern schools in 1967 for violating the 1964 Civil Rights Act, suddenly black players began appearing on rosters across the south.

Ironically the Blue-Gray Game eventually became a showcase for many superb black players who were not on the rosters of major teams and excluded from bowl game exposure. Athletes like Mississippi Valley State’s Jerry Rice were given a chance to shine in front of pro scouts and earn a chance at making real money in the NFL.