Sports, Race Relations, & Growing Up in the 1960s
Born in 1958, I came of age in the 1960s and ‘70s in the north end of Flint, MI. Today, that neighborhood is an urban war zone. Within its few square miles, my old neighborhood is responsible for one of the highest per capita rates of deadly crime in the USA. It was different in 1967.
We were a snug neighborhood. Most families, black or white, were blue-collar, working class, and employed by General Motors. Some, like my parents, were young professionals starting careers. All of us kids attended the local public school, Brownell Elementary, though most of the Catholic kids attended nearby St. Agnes. I was the only Jewish kid on the block.
None of that mattered. White and black, Catholic, Christian and Jew, we had something in common: We all loved sports. Baseball in the spring and summer, football from late summer until after the first snows fell, then basketball throughout the winter.
In 1967, I was 9 years old and, as the pundits said, “the cities were ablaze with racial violence.” Watts, Cleveland, D.C., and Detroit all erupted, fueled by 100 years of racial inequality. My father’s new Buick Electra 225 convertible was firebombed as it sat at the curb in front of our house; the flames shot higher than our two-story home. The police hypothesized that copycat rioters fleeing a riot scene miles to the south “disposed” of their last Molotov cocktail by heaving it onto the ragtop. I slept through the whole thing.
In a way, all of the neighborhood kids slept through it. We were caught up in the Red Sox/Tigers battle for the American League pennant. We were far more concerned with Jim Lonborg vs. Denny McLain, Carl Yastrzemski vs. Willie Horton, than we were with Dr. King vs. Gov. Maddox. The Red Sox took the pennant by one game; we moved on to football.
On November 19, 1967, Notre Dame played Michigan State to a 10-10 tie in a “Game of the Century.” A row of transistor radios, tuned to the game, sat on my redheaded friend Tom’s picnic table so we could listen to the game while we had our own game in the street. During that game, as I recall, our Catholic friend Joey threw a lot of touchdown passes to our black friend Willie.
Five months later, that spirit of tikkun olam flew out the window. It was April 4, 1968, at 6:00pm. An Irishman, Bono, says it well, or you can watch a MLK/U2 montage here:
Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on a Thursday evening. We went to school on Friday; we were sent home before lunch. It was one of the most terrifying walks I have ever taken. I had black friends. We ate at each other’s homes. We played together. We got in trouble at school together. But with one shot, our innocence – much of it gained through sports – was gone.
All of a sudden, I was the enemy. There were fights in the streets between white and black high school kids. Packs of white kids wandered the streets; packs of black kids wandered the streets. They eyed each other like lions and zebras, unsure who was the predator and who was the prey. I knew guys in each group – they were teammates, survivors together of Coach Brines’s brutal two-a-day football camps. They marched in the band together. They got along. My pre-adolescent friends and me, we got along.
But not that day. My teammates had vanished, replaced by very angry young black kids. They were striking out at anyone. Everyone. Terrified, I ran home.
Later in the spring, we tried to sort it out in our sixth grade way. When picking sides for baseball, the same two guys were always picked first and second. Dave Montpas, a white kid, was a vacuum cleaner at shortstop with a batting eye that would have made Ted Williams proud; Edward Peete was a 5’10” black 6th grader with an Afro pick always stuck in his ‘fro, who hit mammoth tape-measure homeruns.
Opening Day, sixth grade. Montpas and Peete, first picked like always. At that moment, this Jewish kid was not concerned with tikkun olam. My buddy Willie Sanders was not concerned with MLK’s path of non-violent change. If you wanted to win, you needed Montpas or Peete. Plain and simple.
Whether or not you grew up in the same era I did, I’m curious to know: As a kid, did sport inform your view of race relations? How do sports shape your view of race today? How did, or didn’t, your Jewishness shape your view of race and sport? And what was the watershed moment in your youth when you realized that sport was not going to be the answer to our racial issues?
David Stanley is a member of Temple Beth El in Flint, MI. He is a teacher, athlete, coach, and cancer survivor blogging about education, cancer, sport, society at DStan58-Rants & Mutters.