During the 1967 football season, two missions consumed Jake Gaither, Florida A&M’s legendary coach. The first one, visible to any sports fan, consisted of leading the Rattlers to a championship after several subpar years. And in the second, conducted entirely behind closed doors, Gaither was trying to use his beloved sport to break the stranglehold of segregation.
All through the late summer and autumn, Gaither prodded and pleaded and drilled his FAMU team to an 8-1 record and a showdown with Eddie Robinson’s Grambling Tigers in the Orange Blossom Classic, the annual game in Miami that served as black college football’s de facto Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, Gaither paid visits to Florida’s governor, Claude Kirk, and to the state’s Board of Regents, and to influential legislators, all of them white. For decades, Gaither had been cultivating cordial relations with Florida’s political leaders, virtually all of them devoted to the Jim Crow system, and his warmth toward the apparent enemy utterly confounded Tallahassee’s civil-rights activists.
As Gaither well knew, he was routinely assailed as an Uncle Tom. What none of those critics knew, though, and what even few of Gaither’s closest friends and fellow coaches realized, was why he was playing the role. He was methodically building up favors and accruing clout with a precise goal in mind.
Finally, in 1967, he presented it to Kirk and the rest: He wanted permission to play a football game between a black college team and a white college team. No such game had ever been played in the South. College football was so important in the region’s culture, in fact, that for segregationists it was a pillar of white supremacy. For five, seven, 10 years after the main state universities of the South admitted black students — albeit begrudgingly, often under pressure from federal law and federal troops — they deliberately kept their football teams all white.
The prevailing view in that bigoted time was that no matter how many games Gaither had won, no matter how many players he had sent to the pros, he was only good for a black coach, and the Rattlers were only good for a black team. No black team could possibly beat a white team, and no black coach could possibly best a white coach. Beyond that, no game with an integrated crowd could ever be played. It would be asking for a race riot.
Gaither believed in his own talent and that of his players, and he also believed in the better angels of America. If FAMU could win, the scoreboard would make the case for racial equality. If civility prevailed in the stands, nobody could plausibly say that whites and blacks were meant to be separated. The problem was that Gaither needed state approval for FAMU, a state school, to play a white team.
As brilliant a political strategist as a gridiron one, Gaither put Kirk and the regents in a vise. They couldn’t say no, lest they make Gaither a public foe on civil-rights issues. Yet they dared not say yes, lest they inflame much of the white public. So they offered Gaither the best deal he was going to get: confidential verbal approval for the black-white game, but no written record of that approval. If the riot occurred, only Gaither would bear the responsibility.
For nearly two years, no white college team took up Gaither’s offer — not Miami, not the University of Florida, not even Florida State, whose campus abutted FAMU’s. Finally, the ambitious young coach of the University of Tampa, Fran Curci, seized the chance. An Italian Catholic transplanted from Pittsburgh to Miami during childhood, Curci had no tolerance for segregation. He had accepted Tampa’s job on a promise from the university president that he could integrate its football team.
Two transformative things happened in Tampa Stadium on the night of Nov. 29, 1969. FAMU beat a favored, higher-ranked Tampa team 34-28, and Curci made a point of telling the assembled press corps that the better team and better coach had won. And a capacity crowd of 47,000, equally divided among whites and blacks, watched a nail-bitingly close game without any taunting, any fighting, any rioting.
Within months of the FAMU-Tampa game, such bastions of white football as Bear Bryant’s Alabama started to recruit black players. Major games with integrated teams and integrated crowds went from daring to novel to normal. As for Jake Gaither, until the end of his life, he spoke of the FAMU-Tampa game as his greatest achievement.
“I wanted to prove to myself that it could be done in Florida — the deepest state in the Deep South,” he once said. “And we did it.”
This article is adapted from Samuel G. Freedman’s book “Breaking The Line: The Year in Black College Football That Transformed the Game and Changed the Course of Civil Rights.” He will be speaking about the book, joined by several members of FAMU’s 1969 team, at 7 p.m. on Feb. 26 at the Church of the Open Door, 6001 NW 8th Avenue, Miami.