It had been five years since George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, but things were slow to change in rural Alabama.
Senior Editor Phillip Marshall
Integration was the law of the land in 1968, but it had not become part of Henry Harris’ life. One of five children, he lived with his family in an abandoned service station in Boligee, Ala. He attended Green County Training School in nearby Eutaw. He’d never had a white schoolmate. His widowed mother, Willie Pearl Harris, tried to make ends meet as a lunchroom helper.
Henry Harris was determined to rise above the difficulties of his life. He was an outstanding athlete and an outstanding student. He was a star on his school’s football and baseball teams, but it was in basketball that he was at his best. Neither Auburn nor Alabama had ever had an African-American scholarship athlete. They both wanted Harris to be the first.
When Auburn assistant Rudy Davalos went with Harris to a nearby fast-food restaurant, he’d go inside, get sandwiches and bring them back to the car. Harris wasn’t allowed inside.
Harris signed with Auburn and made history. He went on to a stellar career, though he was often lonely. Even in Auburn, things were slow to change.
A year later, James Owens just wanted a haircut. Auburn coach Shug Jordan had told his players their hair was getting too long. At the Auburn Barber Shop near campus, Owens walked in and found the barber sitting in his chair. At the sight of Owens, he leaped to his feet.
“I didn’t know any better,” Owens said years later. “The guy jumps up and says ‘Please leave. I can’t cut your hair and you are going to ruin my business.’ Things like that stick with a young man who doesn’t know what to do.”
Owens, the first African-American receive a football scholarship, went on to be one of the heroes as the fullback on the 1972 Amazin’s. A year after he arrived, wide receiver Thom Gossom arrived as a walk-on.
Harris died tragically of an apparent suicide. Owens, now a minister and an Auburn University employee, went through difficulties that took him years to reconcile.
More than four decades later, a mostly African-American Auburn football team won a national championship and went to the White House to be honored by the first African-American president. One of the players on that team was redshirt freshman linebacker LaDarius Owens, James Owens’ nephew.
It wasn’t surprising that, for many Auburn players, one of the highlights of the trip was visiting the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King stood in giving his “I have a dream” speech. And just think what it meant for Kodi Burns to give President Obama an Auburn jersey and helmet and pose with him for a picture.
It was a scene no other generation of African-Americans could have imagined.
There are lots of good things about college athletics, but one of the better things is that it brings people from very different backgrounds together. When the sun beats down on practice in the heat of August, there is no time to think about who is black and who is white, who has money and who doesn’t, who drives the nicest car or lives in the best neighborhood.
Lifetime friendships among young men whose paths would never have crossed had it not been for college football.
Not everything has changed. Former Auburn defensive tackle DeMarco McNeil, an outstanding player and student and person, told me that he never had a white classmate before he arrived at Auburn. Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville was the first white person who visited his home. But McNeil was respected and loved by all his teammates, black and white.
From Dr. King’s famous speech:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
In no place is that dream closer to reality than in college athletics. For dozens of Auburn football players who have experienced that, who have loved ones who experienced a very different time, Wednesday was a special day indeed.
Those who were there and experienced it will never forget it.