[Marxism] Perry Wallace, College Basketball Pioneer, Is Dead at 69

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 8 09:55:54 MST 2017

NY Times, Dec. 7 2017
Perry Wallace, College Basketball Pioneer, Is Dead at 69

Perry Wallace, who became the first black varsity basketball player in 
Southeastern Conference history in the 1960s as a strong-rebounding 
forward for his hometown Vanderbilt University in Nashville, died on 
Dec. 1 at a hospice in Rockville, Md. He was 69.

His wife, Karen, said the cause was cancer.

Wallace, who later became a lawyer, was a high school star in Nashville 
and one of the country’s top schoolboy players. When he accepted a 
scholarship to play at Vanderbilt in May 1966, he was, at 18, agreeing 
to become a racial pioneer.

The conference was resistant to integration even as the civil rights 
movement was at its peak. One symbol of that intransigence was the 
powerful Kentucky coach, Adolph Rupp, whose all-white teams had won four 
national championships. But his Wildcats lost the 1966 N.C.A.A. men’s 
tournament final in an upset to Texas Western, whose starting five was 
all African-American.

“In the final analysis,” Wallace said, “I thought a long time about 
being the first Negro boy in the S.E.C.”

Nearly 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, 
Wallace stepped onto the Vanderbilt campus and was jolted by what he 
encountered. He had one black teammate, Godfrey Dillard, on Vanderbilt’s 
freshman team, but he spent the next three years on the varsity team 
without one.

His white teammates and coaches did not understand how isolated he was, 
and he felt betrayed by those who had recruited him.

“The entrance of your first black athlete involved deception,” he told 
the school’s human relations council in remarks in 1968 that were first 
published in “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and 
Sports in the South” (2014), by Andrew Maraniss. During his recruitment, 
he said, he was lied to about the extent of racism on the campus and the 
sort of social life he would have as one of the few blacks enrolled there.

One teammate, he said, suggested that Wallace would have “enjoyed the 
old slave-breeding camps” and asked him about picking cotton. “My first 
year here involved a battle with my teammates to defeat their knowing 
and unknowing attempts to categorize me as the ‘team nigger,’ ” he added.

Wallace dreaded the thought of playing in Mississippi, with its poor 
civil rights record. But in early 1967, the Commodores flew to 
Starkville to play Mississippi State. Wallace and Dillard, his freshman 
teammate, were inundated with racial epithets and threats of lynching, 
mainly by Mississippi State football players.

“Not that high-class bigotry is worthy of praise,” Wallace said in 
“Strong Inside,” “but these guys at Mississippi State were just 
low-class, crude, ignorant rednecks. And they were screaming and 
hollering and insulting us, calling us names, saying they were going to 
kill us, and, as the game started, it got worse.”

As time ran out in the first half, Wallace heaved the ball downcourt. 
And many in the crowd shouted, “Shooooot,” using the racial epithet.

Vanderbilt lost the game, 84-70, but Wallace scored 13 points and led 
both teams with 19 rebounds. His and Dillard’s ordeal was not over, 
though. They were abused as they sat in the bleachers to watch 
Vanderbilt’s varsity play.

More than a year later, the team traveled to Oxford to play the 
University of Mississippi. Wallace was a sophomore and the only black on 
the varsity; Dillard was injured all season and would transfer to 
Eastern Michigan University in his junior year.

The verbal attacks that fans directed at Wallace were as bad as they had 
been in Starkville; they applauded and laughed at each of his mistakes. 
Then an Ole Miss player hit him in the eye, bloodying and staggering him 
and blurring his eyesight. He was treated at halftime but returned to 
the court alone, without the support of a teammate or a coach beside him.

Still, he helped start a 20-4 run that secured the Commodores’ 90-72 

“Things were so bad, it was so oppressive,” he told Mr. Maraniss, “and 
so much bad stuff had happened, that sure, it pushed me to another 
level. But I don’t think that’s the way you ought to have to play ball, 
to have that kind of challenge.”

Perry Eugene Wallace Jr. was born in Nashville on Feb. 19, 1948. His 
father had a construction business, and his mother, the former Hattie 
Haynes, was a domestic worker.

At the all-black Pearl High School, where he was the class 
valedictorian, he led the basketball team to an undefeated season and a 
state championship in 1966 — the first time black, white and integrated 
schools played in the same Tennessee state tournament. The Tennessean 
called him the school’s “high-jumping Goliath of the backboards,” and 
Parade magazine named him one of the country’s top 10 high school 
basketball players.

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He was courted by dozens of colleges and visited seven campuses beside 
Vanderbilt’s, including Michigan, Cincinnati, Iowa and Louisville. He 
chose Vanderbilt, he said, because of Coach Roy Skinner’s sincerity and 
the comfort he felt with the players — but also because it was his 
mother’s choice.

Dillard, who also went on to become a lawyer, told The Michigan 
Chronicle earlier this year that “the pressures from the black community 
in Nashville for him to go Vanderbilt” — and break the color barrier — 
were “tremendous.”

Mr. Maraniss said in a telephone interview that Wallace considered 
leaving Vanderbilt after his freshman year. “But he felt that he had 
started something that was too big to quit,” he said. “He didn’t want to 
satisfy the people who felt he would fail.”

Wallace improved in each of his three seasons on the varsity, 
culminating in a senior year in which he averaged 17.7 points and 13.5 
rebounds a game. After graduating in 1970 with an engineering degree, he 
was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers but cut during the preseason. He 
played sparingly for the Delaware Blue Bombers of the minor-league 
Eastern Basketball Association and was a student teacher at a high 
school in Philadelphia before graduating from Columbia Law School.

Over the years, he worked as a trial lawyer for the Justice Department, 
specializing in environmental law, and as a law professor at the 
University of Baltimore Law School and the Washington College of Law at 
American University. He also worked internationally on various projects, 
including serving as a representative of the Federated States of 
Micronesia at a United Nations global warming hearing in Kenya.

Anthony Varona, a law professor at American University, wrote in an 
email that Wallace’s legal scholarship focused on “the need for 
corporate accountability, transparency, and the protection of the less 
advantaged against corporate malfeasance.”

In addition to his wife, the former Karen Smyley, Wallace is survived by 
his daughter, Gabrielle, and his sisters, Bessie Garrett, Jessie Jackson 
and Annie Sweet. He lived in Silver Spring, Md.

Ms. Wallace said that when he described the racism he endured, it wasn’t 
with anger. “He felt the pain and suffering, but he was soft-spoken and 
didn’t talk about it with rage,” she said in a telephone interview. “He 
was not a belligerent man.”

Wallace’s college career ended emphatically in 1970 during a loss at 
home to Mississippi State. He grabbed 27 rebounds and scored 29 points, 
the last two on a slam dunk — a shot the N.C.A.A. had banned in 1967, 
ostensibly to prevent injuries, although many believed it was to curb 
the scoring advantage of big men.

To Wallace, the prohibition against slam dunks was like segregation 
laws: made to be shattered. “They were the law, but they weren’t just,” 
he told NPR in 2014. “And so that is what I think of all those unjust 
and illegal rules. There it is — slam dunk.”

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