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.