Bobby Grier’s only memento from the 1956 Sugar Bowl is a wristwatch he received as a member of the Pittsburgh team.
“I have it locked away,” he said this week. “I don’t wear it.”
Grier’s significance in college football and U.S. history indeed represents a different time. In November 1955, Grier was a Pittsburgh fullback eager to play in the Sugar Bowl against mighty Georgia Tech. However, Grier was thrust into a national spotlight when then-Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin, acting on his segregationist platform that won him the office in 1954, sought to prevent Tech’s all-white squad from playing Pitt because of Grier’s inclusion on the roster.
“The South stands at Armageddon,” Griffin wrote in a telegram to the state board of regents. “The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle.”
The two teams meet again Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium, named for the Tech coach who refused to bow to Griffin’s demand (and also won more than 70 percent of his games). The rosters are dominated by black players. They will be cheered by fans of all races. To most, the thought of a college football game being played solely by white players would likely be difficult to fathom.
“It’s absurd to think that there was a level of football that was not (integrated),” said Tom Moak, a Georgia State football graduate assistant who wrote his Princeton senior thesis about the impact of the 1956 Sugar Bowl.
Among the spectators will be Allen Ecker, whose game-changing fumble recovery is not his only vivid memory of that episode.
“It pointed out how irrational some of the positions some of the Southern politicians took (were),” said Ecker, who was an All-American the next year and went on to a successful career with Scientific-Atlanta. “I think most of my friends, most of us at Tech, thought it was pretty ridiculous.”
At the time of Grffin’s action, the civil-rights movement was just beginning. A year earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” public education for white and black students was unconstitutional, a judgment that Griffin called a “bitter pill of tyranny” that the people of Georgia and the South would not swallow.
Just days after the Sugar Bowl put together the Tech-Pitt matchup, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala. While the bus boycott eventually attracted worldwide attention, the bigger story in December 1955 was Grier, Griffin and the Sugar Bowl.
Hundreds of Tech students, whose school would not be integrated for six more years, burned an effigy of Griffin and rioted at the state capitol and the governor’s mansion.
“I jokingly said it was the first civil-rights movement I ever saw that had absolutely nothing to do with civil rights,” said Wade Mitchell, Tech’s quarterback. “(The students) just wanted to go to New Orleans and go to the football game.”
The board of regents soon issued a decision that university-system teams could play integrated teams in states permitting integration.
On Jan. 1, 1956, Tech played, Grier played and no harm was done. Grier was called for a decisive pass-interference penalty that set up the only score of the game, and the flag was the subject of controversy. Grier has maintained it merely was a bad call, and nothing more. Following the game, at a banquet for both teams, Grier said, Tech players approached Grier and invited him to eat with them.
“I guess they wanted to make a showing that they didn’t like (Griffin’s ploy), either,” Grier said.
The advancement of integration had its limits. The Pittsburgh team stayed in Tulane University dormitories, as the city’s hotels were segregated. (Grier joked that he probably also integrated Tulane’s dorms.) At the postgame banquet where Grier socialized with Tech players, he slipped out before a dance began, sensing he would have been unwanted by the event hosts. He instead went to a reception held for him by fraternity brothers at Dillard University, a historically black college.
The regents’ policy that overruled Griffin and sanctioned Tech’s participation in the Sugar Bowl also banned integrated teams and games within the state’s borders, perhaps achieving the governor’s political intent.
In 1956, months after Grier helped bring a progressive portrayal to New Orleans, the state of Louisiana enacted a law that prohibited interracial athletic contests. The Sugar Bowl was not integrated again until 1965.
Tech integrated its student population in 1961. The football team took on its first black football player in 1969, quarterback Eddie McAshan.
Progress took a slow course, but perhaps the harsh spotlight on Grier and the state of Georgia helped plant seeds.
On Saturday night, as Ecker watches the game from his suite, the only hour of struggle worth noting will take place on the line of scrimmage.
Said Ecker, “We just hope we can again beat Pittsburgh.”