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.