On January 1, 1956, Georgia Tech defeated the University of Pittsburgh 7-0 in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. One of Pitt's stars was Bobby Grier, an African-American fullback. Coming on the heels of the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation decision, many Southern segregationists resented the presence of high-profile bi-racial sporting events in the heart of the Old Confederacy.
Over the next several months, in the midst of passing myriad similar new Jim Crow statutes, state legislators in Georgia and Louisiana debated bills to outlaw integrated sporting events in their states. Nothing ever became of the agitation in Georgia, but in July of 1956, the Louisiana State assembly passed a social segregation law that banned all integrated sporting events in the state. Louisiana Governor Earl Long, brother of the legendary Huey Long, signed the ball into law soon after.
The University of Wisconsin had not overtly faced Southern Jim Crow athletic policies since the cancellation of a track meet at the University of Missouri in 1939. The Badgers, however, prior to the passage of the new Louisiana state law, had negotiated a home-and-home football contract with Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for 1957 and 1958.
In the mid-1950s, the Badger football team routinely featured numerous African-American players, and, in fact, Sidney Williams, a black quarterback, piloted the 1957 football team, which would have been the first to play against LSU. Recognizing the incompatibility of an integrated football team with Louisiana's new strict segregation law, the UW athletic administration immediately took action.
Within days of Gov. Long signing the bill in July, Badger Athletic Director Ivan Williamson announced that the University was canceling its contract with LSU. According to the official statement of the athletic department, the new law "would have the effect of denying to the University of Wisconsin the privilege of selecting the members of its team without regard to race or color in any contest played in Louisiana."
The statement further declared that Wisconsin had "always entered into contract[s]... on the basis that each school would have complete freedom to select its team members." Since the new Louisiana law "interfered with this traditional basic policy of freedom of selection," the University continued, it "forc[ed] a termination of the contract." [For the full text of the UW's statement, click here]
The local community roundly praised and supported the UW's action in refusing to abide Louisiana's Jim Crow stance. The Wisconsin State Journal argued that "most Wisconsin residents share our view that any other action by our great state university would have been a violation of the traditions which have made it world famous."
The newspaper compared Louisiana's segregationists to an "obnoxious little boy" and finished with a flourish, declaring that, "many southerners have protested [that] the U.S. Supreme Court decision on segregation is an invasion of their so-called 'state rights.' We feel the same way about the University of Wisconsin's right to pick its own football lineup."
The Daily Cardinal went even further, decrying the "intemperate piece of legislation" which forbid inter-racial athletics. The student newspaper lauded the University's "determination... to eliminate the negro's 'second class citizenship'... and all traces of discrimination and intolerance among whites."
Wisconsin was the first of many northern colleges and universities to cancel athletic contests in Louisiana because of the state's new law. Marquette University, for example, pulled out of a scheduled basketball game with Loyola University of New Orleans soon after the UW's action.
In 1958, a federal judge threw out the Louisiana law banning integrated athletic contests. The United States Supreme Court upheld this decision a year later, but many Southern universities continued to resist integration. Louisiana State did not fully comply with court orders mandating desegregation until 1964, and the school did not suit up an African-American football player until 1973. Nevertheless, despite the slow pace of integration, high profile events like the UW football controversy brought needed attention to the cause of civil rights.
The University of Wisconsin finally traveled to Baton Rouge to play LSU in the Fall of 1972 several years after Louisiana's Jim Crow laws were off the books. It was UW's first game in the South since the 1950s.
For further reading:
Martin, Charles H. "Integrating New Year's Day: The Racial Politics of College Bowl Games in the American South," Journal of Sport History Vol.24, No. 3 (Fall 1997), pages 358-377)
Gregory Bond, Ph.D.
History, University of Wisconsin