The 2016 Super Bowl was the 7th time in the history of the game that an African American had started at the quarterback position. This podcast tells the story of the civil rights struggle of African Americans advancing at the quarterback position in the NFL. James “Shack” Harris was the first black player in history of NFL to earn a job as starting quarterback.
I speak with Sam Freedman, author of, “Breaking The Line,” a history of college football at historically black institutions during the Civil Rights Movement. He believes the significance of Harris breaking the color barrier at the quarterback position is the “single most important act of desegregation in American Sports.” Freedman says before Harris’ achievement, the conventional wisdom was that ‘blacks weren’t smart enough’ to play the position. “This was completely tied into the most vile stereotypes of notions of white supremacy and black inferiority.”
During the time Harris was in high school in Monroe, LA, the school system had still been resisting desegregation. And though Harris was confident in his creativity, toughness, and competence, the dream of making it to the NFL seemed insurmountable. Regardless, his 25-game winning streak and a state championship for Louisiana schools caught the eye of Eddie Robinson, the football coach of Grambling State, a historically black public university in Louisiana.
After a successful career at Grambling, Harris was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 1969 and played in the backfield with a rookie named O. J. Simpson. He was later traded to the L.A. Rams where he led his team to the NFC Championship two years in a row and made it to the Pro-Bowl, where he was named MVP. During his time with the Rams, he received hate mail and death threats similar to the animus and vitriol that Jackie Robinson faced when he crossed the color line in baseball.
Freedman says that like Robinson, Harris had to prove that he had the skills to play the game at a high level while withstanding the race hate, but that he had to do a third thing. “He had to show that he was the intellectual equal, if not superior, than the white players around him.”
Us & Them is a joint project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Trey Kay Productions, with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council.