On the afternoon before the Orange Blossom Classic in December 1967, as the Grambling Tigers ran wind sprints in their sweat suits on a junior college’s practice field in Miami, two buses glided to a halt across the street. Out of them poured the hundred players on the Florida A&M Rattlers, clad in full uniforms, even though their pregame drills were to be held in a park 12 miles away.
The FAMU players formed a line and began to trot around the perimeter of the field, chanting as they went, “It’s so hard to be a Rattler.” Grambling’s coach, Eddie Robinson, watched and seethed. Alluding to a well-known symbol used by the protest movement against the Vietnam War, he vowed, “The peace dove flies out the window tomorrow!”
This moment of provocation was true to the intensity of the Orange Blossom Classic, the game that for decades served as the de facto championship for black college football. Denied the right to play white college teams in the South and ignored by most of the white media, black teams had to create their own version of a Super Bowl. The jawing and posturing that went with reflected the sad reality that, as Grambling’s quarterback James Harris put it, “Trash-talking was the only publicity we got.”
Yet in that 1967 game, Florida A&M and Grambling were allies as much as rivals. They were unified in the cause in using football as a wedge to help shatter segregation and hasten racial equality. Indeed, the Orange Blossom Classic had developed with the same goal in mind. Its history is an indelible, if undeservedly overlooked, part of the Civil Rights saga in Miami, in Florida, and in America.
For more than 20 years after coming to Miami in 1947, the Orange Blossom Classic provided both the most important annual sporting event and the largest annual gathering of any kind for black Americans. More than forty thousand spectators attended the game itself, while tens of thousands more thronged the parade route of the Florida A&M marching band. Black tourists flocked to the hotels, restaurants, and clubs of Overtown and Liberty City.
As both football game and communal celebration, the Orange Blossom Classic had arisen as a black answer to invisibility, the kind of invisibility Ralph Ellison had famously rendered in his novel.
When Miami in 1937 opened the Orange Bowl stadium, a public facility built with public funds, it excluded blacks from all but one roped-off section of the eastern end zone. No integrated football team was permitted onto the gridiron until the Nebraska Cornhuskers played Duke in the 1955 Orange Bowl.
Blacks were barred from participating in any of the pageants and events related to the bowl game, much as they were barred from patronizing the resort hotels in Miami Beach. The black maids and janitors and cooks and bellhops who comprised the human infrastructure of those establishments needed to obtain identification cards from the police. Even the black performers who drew the crowds -- Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald – were forbidden to stay in the hotels where they entertained.
So during the 1930s, Miami blacks began their own competitor to the Orange Bowl festivities, which they called the Coconut Festival. It had its own beauty queen, its own parade, and its own football game, played in Dorsey Park, a segregated square block named for Miami’s first black millionaire. The Coconut Festival game, though, lacked much football pizzazz. That was where J.R.E. Lee, Jr., the son of Florida A&M’s then-president, came in.
In the early 1930s, Lee conceived of a “Black Rose Bowl,” naming it the Orange Blossom Classic. For its first 13 years, the contest migrated between Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa, an itinerant attraction that gradually built its audience and reputation. Then, in 1947, Lee linked its fortunes to the Coconut Festival’s and settled it in Miami.
Miami had the largest stadium in Florida. Miami had the greatest concentration of media anywhere in the state. And Miami, as it entered the postwar boom, was beginning to shake off its rigid segregation, owing largely to the influx of Jews from the north, most of them either tacitly or actively supportive of civil rights.
The very first Classic game in Miami made racial history. For the first time, black fans were permitted to sit in the main stands of the Orange Bowl. (In a perhaps unwitting reference to the Civil War, blacks sat on the northern side of the stadium, white on the southern.)
When a Rattler receiver named Nathaniel “Traz” Powell caught a 45-yard pass to break a 0-0 tie with Hampton Institute, he became the first black to score a touchdown on the Orange Bowl’s previously whites-only gridiron. Powell had grown up in Miami as the son of a laundress and a laborer at the city incinerator. For years to come, blacks around the state would speak about his touchdown as if he’d been Rosa Parks refusing to surrender her seat.
Firmly established by the 1950s, the Orange Blossom Classic far outdrew the University of Miami’s football games and, later, in the Dolphins’ first few seasons, the new AFL franchise. One year, the comic Nipsy Russell joined the Rattlers on their sideline, another time it was Sammy Davis.
All week long, the streets of Overtown and Liberty City were “crowded like the state fair, music pouring out of doorways,” as one participant remembered. At the Zebra Lounge and the Hampton House, in the Harlem Square Club and the Rockland Palace, all along the stretch of Northwest Second Street called the Great Black Way, stars of jazz, soul, and r&b headlined. Beauty salons stayed open all night to handle the female demand.
Politically speaking, no year was more significant than 1967. For the first time ever, both football teams were staying in integrated hotels on Miami Beach. The Ballantine brewing company was sponsoring a tape-delayed broadcast of the game on television stations in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, and New York – giving black college football its first significant television exposure. The local publicity for the game was being handled by Julian Cole, who counted the ritziest Miami Beach hotels among his clients.
The presence of a substantial market of black consumers, a market long ignored by most major corporations, became a palpable part of the festival. The Orange Blossom Classic’s souvenir program featured advertisements from Humble Oil, Prudential Insurance, and RC Cola, among other national companies. Coca-Cola sponsored a float carrying the Grambling College queen and her court in the pregame parade.
The celebrities in attendance included the first wave of black executives hired by corporations in search of black customers. Pepsi-Cola, the leader in the field, dispatched Charles Dryden, a bona fide war hero as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, now its vice president for special markets. Greyhound sent Joe Black, the former Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, who had been newly appointed the bus company’s vice president of special markets. F.W. Woolworth, a company made notorious by its segregated lunch counters in Southern cities, dispatched Aubrey Lewis, a former Notre Dame football star and FBI agent it had recently hired as an executive recruiter.
Doors were opening in realms beyond sports. In late November 1967, Miami had elected Althalie Range as the first black ever on the City Commission. Her victory came amid a ground-breaking political year for blacks throughout America, with Carl Stokes and Richard Hatcher winning the mayoralties of Cleveland and Gary, respectively. Sidney Poitier’s film To Sir With Love and the Sam and Dave song “Soul Man” were crossover hits. Miami’s chapter of the civil-rights group CORE, essentially a coalition of black Christians and white Jews, had succeeded in desegregating buses, beaches, golf courses, lunch counters, virtually every public institution except schools.
Even amid these optimistic signs, tensions and obstacles emerged. A spate of looting and purse-snatching married the downtown parade by Florida’ A&M’s Marching 100. The band members themselves nearly mutinied in protest of a planned half-time show saluting America’s armed forces – a very controversial proposition during the Vietnam War.
Yet in the wake of the 1967 Classic, which Grambling won 28-25, the pace of positive change accelerated. Dozens of the players went into the pros, most notably of all James Harris, who became the first black quarterback to regularly start for an NFL team. The tape-delayed broadcast helped Grambling achieve even greater visibility the following September, when it played against Morgan State before more than 60,000 fans in Yankee Stadium.
“Times have changed,” John A. Diaz wrote in the Miami Times after the 1967 Classic. “There was a time when Negroes were not permitted to purchase tickets at box offices patronized by whites; when Negroes were not admitted to the Orange Bowl’s New Year game; when at the Orange Blossom Classic game Negroes and whites were segregated. That’s all over now. It therefore seems that the time has arrived for an interracial Orange Blossom Classic game.”
He was halfway prophetic. That breakthrough football game happened, and it involved Florida A&M. But it took place in 1969 against Tampa University in Tampa. Even in the course of undermining its own future – indeed, the game gradually ground to a halt in 1992 – the Orange Blossom Classic had contributed to a greater good.
Samuel G. Freedman is the author of “Breaking The Line,” a new book about black college football and the Civil Rights struggle, from which this essay is adapted. He will be speaking at Florida International University at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 18 and at Books & Books in Coral Gables at 8 p.m. on Sept. 19.