This is a story of redemption. This is how football saved the most racist state in America.
Go roll to victory,
hit your stride.
You’re Dixie’s football pride,
Roll Tide, Roll Tide.
-From “Yea, Alabama”
Police dogs are tearing mouthfuls of flesh from men and women in their Sunday best. Your police chief is fire-hosing black protesters in the street. Your kids and the neighbors’ kids aren’t allowed to go to school together. They aren’t even allowed to swim in the same swimming pools or go to the same parks. Martin Luther King, Jr. is in the jail down the street. Footage of a city bus burning (vandalized and bombed because black people can sit wherever they want) plays on a loop across the national news. Your neighbors bombed the basement of a church, killing four little girls while they were sitting in Sunday School. Your governor is standing in the door of the University of Alabama refusing to admit three black students. Directly into the camera, he says, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The year is 1963. You are living in Birmingham, Alabama. In faraway places such as Japan, videos of the hate and mayhem in your hometown play on the news. In 1963, there’s only one other reason Alabama is mentioned on the news.
There’s a man named Bear who coaches a football team called the Crimson Tide. The Alabama Crimson Tide. And, damn, they can play football. You know all the words to ‘Yea, Alabama’. You know all the chants. There’s one that stands out in your memory: It’s great to be from Alabama. I said, it’s great to be from Alabama. You chant this while the Crimson Tide plays and it’s the only time it ever feels true.
My grandmother has no reason to love the state of Alabama. She was born in 1927 into a state that didn’t want her. She’d been born about sixty years too late to be a slave, but change moves slowly in that humidity. The men in rocking chairs who drank George Dickel all day long — they hadn’t forgotten when they were kings.
“They called me nigger,” she told me, “so much that I thought it was my name.”
She lives down the street from where she grew up. She’s shown me her house before. In my car, on a sticky September afternoon, I can make the drive in twenty-five minutes. The drive from that rambling wooden house to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
You remember watching Ole Miss. You remember their governor, Ross Barnett, waddling to the fifty yard line at half-time. You remember him shaking a fist and hollering. You remember those jowls wiggling as he stirred a lily-white crowd into a frenzy. Ross Barnett is the son of a Confederate veteran, and he misses that time like a hog misses shit. The undergraduates had stretched a Confederate battle flag behind him, and he’d blustered, and you’ll be damned if those Mississippians didn’t think they had won the war.
James Meredith showed up on campus pretty soon after that, and Oxford, Mississippi went to hell. You caught pieces of it on the nightly news, but all you needed to do was step outside. Oxford, Mississippi is three hours away but when a northerly wind blows, you can still smell the smoke and taste the ash. The President sent in federal troops and a part of them felt like they were being invaded all over again. When the battlefield cleared, a journalist and a repairman were dead.
Ole Miss was undefeated that year.
That northerly wind is blowing on Tuscaloosa, and the Crimson Tide has returned to practice.
Your governor, George C. Wallace, is wearing his finest suit, standing in the door of the administration building at the University of Alabama, and rambling. He promised to never be “out-niggered again”, so he’s got to put on a show for the boys in white. Down Sixth Avenue, the boys in crimson are slogging through the summer heat while the man in the hat shouts. The man in the suit and the man in the hat stand on opposite ends of the University of Alabama.
President Kennedy hasn’t waited nearly as long this time. He knows the sweat-soaked South is spoiling for a rematch. The Alabama National Guard, under orders from the president, marches Vivian Malone and James Hood up to the schoolhouse doors. The general of the Alabama National Guard, Henry Graham, is a veteran of protecting his black brothers from his white ones. He protected Freedom Riders back in ‘61. That’s the same year Martin Luther King employed him and his guardsmen as security at a church. These days, churches need protection from men who aim to do God’s work.
Graham stomps to the steps of the schoolhouse door with two black students and a phalanx of riflemen. He addresses the governor, his boss. He says, “It is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under the orders of the President of the United States.” You wonder which part makes him so sad.
The governor steps aside. Alabama beats Ole Miss that year.
My grandmother went to Tuskegee Institute, far from her home, when her heart was at the University of Alabama. Tuscaloosa didn’t want her the way she wanted Tuscaloosa. She grew up shopping in Tuscaloosa and walking in the shadows of Bryant-Denny Stadium. She stood underneath a great promise — the Capstone of education in Alabama — and was denied. The promise of Alabama was not for her or anyone like her. When I was younger, she sat me next to her on the couch, and we watched the game together. Seconds before the game started, she said, “Baby, we’re Alabama fans. You have to be one, too. If you love me, then you love Alabama.”
Sitting by a wooden radio, in the oppressive heat of late September, she would listen to the Crimson Tide. “Dixie’s Football Pride” would come thundering onto the field and the announcer would say, “Hold your horses; here come the elephants.” Chills. If the wind was blowing just right- slightly southwest- she imagined she could hear the crowd in the stadium. She’d never seen the inside of the stadium and reckoned she never would. Tuscaloosa is thirty-four miles from her back porch, but that space was an entire world. In her imagination, a mist would rise from nowhere as the Tide marched onto the field. Bear Bryant would stroll at the head of a column of determined young men carrying an entire state’s collective pride. He would tip that houndstooth hat to the crowd, as if to say, “I know what I’m here to do.” The other team — in her mind, it was always Notre Dame — would come running out of the locker room to a chorus of shouting in every different Alabama drawl.
Notre Dame, with their gleaming helmets and Northern pride, would look across the field and around the stadium thinking themselves superior. “We don’t have these problems, Sarah.” They would say to her, personally. “Leave that mosquito-ridden, backwater state. It doesn’t want you anyway.” But God, she wanted Alabama.
The Crimson Tide would go on to beat Notre Dame in a way that those northerners had never known. The whole while, the crowd would chant, “It’s great to be from Alll-a-baaaa-ma.” As the Fighting Irish — or whomever was actually playing — dragged themselves off our field with their chins in their chests, the crowd would chant again:
“Hey Irish, Hey Irish, Hey Irish…
We just beat the hell out of you
Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer
I’m standing in the student section at Bryant-Denny stadium. I’ve got a belly full of George Dickel and a girl in a sun dress has the rest of the bottle in her purse. I’ve got a flask in my boot. She’s wearing a crimson dress with hair the same color. This is the day after Thanksgiving, and the temperature is pushing into the eighties. I’m sweating through my houndstooth blazer. She’s rubbing sunscreen onto her arms and laughing that she doesn’t tan, she “just freckles.”
We’re talking about some class we have together, me and the girl kind enough to come with me. The crowd is an indefinable roar of conversations and the occasional vendor shouting wares — frozen lemonade, nachos, hot dogs. The Jumbo-Tron plays highlights from earlier in the season.
Bear Bryant. Hush.
There, taller than he ever was, the Bear leans against the goalpost at Bryant-Denny stadium. I’m standing twenty rows away from that same goalpost. Bear’s voice, through a hundred speakers, brings the crowd to its feet. “I want the people to remember me as a winner. I ain’t never been nothing but a winner.” Newcomers have to ask what the hell the voice is saying because the Southern drawl is thick as molasses and 101,000 people are screaming while he grumbles.
The day is the Iron Bowl. Auburn has come. The Crimson Tide has never beaten Auburn in Bryant-Denny stadium. They’ve beaten us six times in a row — the little brother who has forgotten his place in the pack. Every time they’ve come into our house, they’ve embarrassed us. We’ve become the embarrassment of Alabama, the school with the racist past and the losing football team. This year, though, we’re undefeated. So far.
Give ‘em hell, Alabama.”
Auburn doesn’t know shame the way Alabama does; few schools do. Alabama had been open for thirty-four years when Brigadier General John T. Croxton marched 1500 riflemen down Watermelon Road. In 1865, the students at Alabama didn’t play football; they played war. They were young boys who woke up on the morning of April 3, 1865 and went to classes. They went to lunch. They went to afternoon classes. Then, the United States came. By morning on April 5th, the entire campus was burning to ashes. The flames of the library climbed above the trees; all of the books that constituted Alabama’s knowledge were curling to smoke. That’s what happens to the knowledge Southerners have. As they left, Brigadier General Croxton burned the bridge over the Black Warrior River; the University of Alabama was left cut off and alone, to be eaten by its shame.
There’s a Ruby Tuesday and a movie theater on Watermelon Road now. I used to buy my cigarettes at a gas station down Watermelon near my apartment. One visiting Tuscaloosa could easily be fooled into thinking that we’ve forgotten about Brigadier General John T. Croxton and the United States’ torches. Talk of leaving the U.S. ever again is left to the fringe of tobacco-spitting tractor-pull aficionados. It’s hard to think about leaving considering that the last time we did, someone set our house on fire. We haven’t forgotten, though.
7,000 books died by the torch — one of the largest libraries in the country was sacrificed. Under orders from Croxton, Colonel Thomas Johnston rode a pale horse to the center of campus where a group of Alabama professors pled for the fate of the library. By this time, the campus was under Croxton’s complete control and accepted occupation peacefully. Croxton was a man like Sherman and felt that war, when not sufficiently hellacious, had to be made so. The fighting was over, but the Alabamians needed to be punished.
Johnston, not quite so unreasonable, sent word to Croxton saying that the library served no military purpose. Croxton replied that everything was to be set ablaze. Johnston, lamenting the murder of so much knowledge, saved one book — a translation of the Quran. No one is sure why he chose this book.
Only seven buildings survived the wrath of the United States of America.
Auburn, neighbor to the south, closed its doors when war ripped the country in half. Alabama was torn to tatters. After this, we grew very protective of our house.
Four years ago, you watched every Alabama game. You didn’t even know it was possible to play football like that. The announcers called that 1966 Crimson Tide team the greatest college football team of all time. For the first time ever, the National Football League and the American Football League played a championship game so big it was called the Super Bowl. Vince Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers won and the reporter asked him what it was like “to have the world’s greatest football team.” Coach Lombardi said, “I don’t know. We haven’t played Alabama yet.” The voters gave the championship to Notre Dame, though. Alabama’s all-white team had turned the rest of the country against The Tide.
The 1970 season has started and the University of South California has come to Birmingham to play Alabama. USC’s got a fullback named Sam Cunningham and he’s about to change the Alabama Crimson Tide. While USC and its black running back run all over the Tide, you hear a Bama fan say, “Man, that nigger sure can run.” Years later, you’ll hear it said that Sam Cunningham did more in 60 minutes to integrate Alabama than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.
We have a four million dollar coach, the slickest stadium in college football, and a grudge that goes back 140 years. When time expires, Auburn hasn’t entered our end zone once. The Crimson Tide wins in a thirty-six point shutout. I watch those orange and blue helmets hang in shame as the Tigers drag their feet back to the locker room. Hey Auburn, hey Auburn, hey Auburn. This is what my grandmother imagined as a girl. Standing right where she’d always belonged. We just beat the hell out of you. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer…
We’ve reclaimed Alabama as our own. We’ve got our pride back. My grandmother is watching the game on her television at home. She always tries to find me in the crowd, but her eyes have grown as old as she is and amongst 100,000 faces, I just don’t stand out.
Give ‘em hell, Alabama.
Photo Credit: Associated Press/File