Texas Western: The Barrier Breakers

April 15, 1947 and Jackie Robinson. Summer of 1960 and Muhammad Ali. Hank Aaron and April 8, 1974.  March 19, 1966 and Texas Western. There is something relevant between all of these names and dates… History and culture were changed. For Jackie Robinson it was breaking the race barrier in baseball, for Muhammad Ali it was not accepting the social norm and deciding human decency was more important than a gold medal, for Hank Aaron it was hitting home-runs in the face of death threats, and for Texas Western it was creating the first ever all black starting lineup in college basketball… and winning a National Championship. All of these events and people hold significant importance in American history, but this story is to detail the importance of how Texas Western players and coaches changed the culture of American society by not becoming engulfed by racial hate during this era.

American culture during the 1960s was very different than it is today. Segregation and racism were at peak heights, and opposing parties were no where near finding a “common ground” between the ideologies. This was true for college basketball during the time, as well. College basketball, during the 1960s, was stuck in the same polarization as American society. This meant that African Americans, although some were on rosters, were not being played or not being allowed the minutes they deserved. Perry Wallace, the first African American basketball player at Vanderbilt, said this about racism in basketball during the 1960s, “There was a certain style of play whites expected from blacks… Whites then thought that if you put five blacks on the court at the same time, they would somehow revert to their native impulses” (Fitzpatrick 2003). This quote shows the animosity and disillusionment between the two races and the massive gap in communications. This all changed, however, when a man by the name of Don Haskins was named the head coach of the Texas Western Miners.

Don Haskins views about race and segregation were much more progressive than that of the time. His ideas about recruiting, and then starting, African Americans were revolutionary thoughts and immediately brought them national exposure. The exposure that these young athletes received, however, was completely negative and derogatory towards their race and their way of play. To specify, Texas Western was not a big college basketball school before 1966, but with Coach Haskins and his recruitment of the best available players, Texas Western was able to get into the National Championship game against the University of Kentucky and their coach, Adolph Rupp. Many people in the state of Kentucky revere the name Rupp, but most forget what his views on race were and what he thought of African American basketball players. Adolph Rupp portrayed the view of many Americans during this time, displaying acts of bitterness and anguish towards African American players, especially Texas Western players after they beat the Wildcats in the championship.

Not only did the Texas Western players have to deal with racism from the opposing team, but they also had to deal with it from the crowd. Frank Fitzpatrick states, “Examine the grainy film more closely. The crowd is white. So are the NCAA officials, the referees, the coaches, the cheerleaders and almost all the sportswriters on press row. High in the bleachers, Kentucky fans wave a Confederate flag as the Wildcats’ five white players line up for the opening tap” (Fitzpatrick 2003). This visual imagery paints a picture of bitter words being sworn, gestures being taunted, and human decency being left at the door. The disheartening part about the situation is that this racism was not just held to sports.

Whites believed they were a superior race to African Americans. In fact, lynching’s and brutal murders had been enacted upon African Americans dating back to the earliest days of U.S. history, and as recently as 1981 (Francis 4-21). These horrible acts give an idea to the reader just how brutal the crimes against African Americans were during this time. Even with segregation and racial tensions being present during the 1960s, Texas Western was able to push above this and break thebarriers between the two races. In 2001, Walt Disney made a movie named Glory Road and it discusses the trials and tribulations that, not only the Texas Western players dealt with, but also every African American living in the 1960s (Martin).

With this National Championship, Texas Western not only added a banner to their gymnasium but also changed many American’s perception of race. Coach Haskins, a white middle-aged man, could look past the color of one’s skin to find the true person. What this means is that Coach Haskins was not trying to recruit white or black players, but rather recruit the players that would win him a championship. That goes farther than just on the basketball court, this concept that Coach Haskins carried in life began to change how others viewed one another in everyday life. Although there were troubling times ahead of this, and there will be to come, this event and this team changed American history forever.

Read: “Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State” Megan Ming Francis

Read: “Texas Western’s 1966 Title Left Lasting Legacy” Frank Fitzpatrick

Read: “Glory Road and Texas Western College: Racial Policy, Big-Time Sports, and Higher Education” Charles H. Martin

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