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‘Breaking The Line’ explores black college football’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement

By Hal Lamar | 11/29/2013, 6 a.m.
What does current African American NFL quarterbacks like Michael Vick, Geno Smith, and former great signal callers Doug Williams and ...
Jake Gaither with team. Photo courtesy of Vern Smith.

What does current African American NFL quarterbacks like Michael Vick, Geno Smith, and former great signal callers Doug Williams and the late Steve “Air” McNair have in common?

They all stand on the shoulders of former Grambling University and Los Angeles Rams quarterback and pioneer James  “Shack” Harris.

How Harris figures so prominently in the careers of the aforementioned is laid out in the book “ Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed The Sport and Changed The Course Of Civil Rights” (Simon and Shuster). Authored by acclaimed journalist and educator Samuel G. Freedman, the book provides information and facts largely unknown to many football fans and American history buffs.  

His ten years of research not only unearthed Harris’ impact on the sport but also the covert way that two coaching pioneers, Grambling’s Eddie Robinson and Florida A&M’s Alonzo S “Jake” Gaither had on the game as a whole and the civil rights movement during the latter years of the 1960s.

Freedman’s 200-plus page work exposes the life and times of Gaither and Robinson, devoting page after page to their arrivals on their campuses in 1937 and 1940 respectively and how  they molded their schools’ grid teams into the powerhouses they became.

Freedman noted during a forum/book signing at the Carter Presidential Center that in many ways, the lives of Robinson and Gaither mirror those of former White House butler Eugene Allen, whose life is loosely depicted in the hit movie “ The Butler”.

“I saw the film and it reminded me of Robinson and Gaither,” he said.  “Like the movie, Robinson and Gaither were born in the early decades of the 20th century and in the harshest years of Jim Crow.

“It’s ironic because one of his children gets involved with the movement and sees his Dad as a weakling, a sellout who doesn’t understand,” Freedman said. “But what his son didn’t understand was women and men who grew up in that period had to wear two faces, one in the white world to survive and another in the black world that represented the real you.”

In  “Breaking the Line”, Freedman said Robinson and Gaither face the same circumstances and, like Whitaker’s character, also face the same retribution from more militant black leadership. They never explained their motivations for refusing to take public stands on civil rights in the 1960s and paid the price by being labeled handkerchief heads, sellouts and Uncle Toms.

But the book seeks to explain that each had a game plan toward achieving goals that each of them felt would advance the cause for civil rights in their own ways while shutting the mouths of the naysayers.

For Gaither, it was getting an opportunity to pit his FAMU rattlers against a white southern college. For Robinson, it was an opportunity to prepare Harris, a native of Monroe, La, to become the NFL’s first black quarterback.

The latter pulled out all the stops to groom Harris, a high school quarterbacking standout including the hiring of Doug Porter, the former Fort Valley State head coach in the late 70s and early 80s , as a passing specialist and  recruiting top notched wide receivers like Hall of Famer Charlie Joiner for  Harris to throw to. Meanwhile, Gaither, who had grown to become one of the most influential black voices in the state of Florida, decides to cash in his “IOUs” and all but demands the opportunity to play a white southern college.