Bear Bryant and the Color Barrier (Covert Racism)

In 1970 the University of Alabama Football team was still a segregated team situated in the heavily segregated and racist south. The teams coach Paul “Bear” Bryant was often accused of being a racist for refusing to recruiting black players because according to him they were not as athletically gifted as white players. Bryant was born and raised in the south during the 1920’s where there is deep seeded racism and he was exposed to this while growing up there and while playing football for the University of Alabama, where he played defensive end and was named second team All-SEC in 1934 (Browning).

After playing for the Crimson Tide as they are called, Bryant moved to an assistant coaching position at Union University in 1936. He later coached for Maryland, Kentucky, and Texas A&M, before assuming the head coaching position at the University of Alabama in 1958. He had great success in his early years at Alabama, including winning the national championship 1961 (Browning). In the years following that, Bryant’s all white Alabama was falling behind other teams who were starting to recruit black players. The major turning point came in 1970 when Alabama faced the USC Trojans led by Sam Cunningham a black running back for the Trojans. Cunningham dominated Alabama in the game that ended up winning 42-21 (Morton). After that season Alabama was forced to recruit black players in order to stay competitive with other schools.

Many people accused Bryant of being a racist for refusing to recruit black players, but he argued that the prevailing social climate did not allow him to do that. This can be seen as a form of covert racism as Bryant would not allow black players to play on his team. Covert racism is a form of racism where it is disguised or rationalized with an explanation that society is more willing to accept, like black players are not as good as white players so that is why they are not offered scholarships. Covert racism often works subliminally and is often done subconsciously. The argument that black players were not as good as white ones was dispelled after the loss to USC when all of the Alabama fans saw the potential of black players and how dominant they could become. Alabama would need to change its ways if it still wanted to be competitive in the new era of college football, one with black players.

After that season Alabama offered its first scholarship to a black player in the school’s history. In 1971 Alabama offered a scholarship to Wilbur Jackson a black player from Alabama to play running back for the Crimson Tide. That same year the first black player played for Alabama, John Mitchell a junior college transfer student (Browning). After that season and the breaking of the color barrier at Alabama, it opened the door for more black players to receive scholarships and to play football at the University of Alabama. By in 1973 more than 1/3 of the teams starters were black and more and more black players were receiving scholarships to Alabama (Browning).

Jackson and Mitchell faced great obstacles and barriers in coming to Alabama and so did coach Bryant because of the possible back lash from alumni and faculty for allowing black athletes to participate and attend Alabama. They all over came many types of racism and helped to show that black athletes could be part of Alabama. Bryant learned to change the way he thought of black people and allowed him to eliminate most of the covert racism that surrounded black athletes. He helped pave the way for black athletes to participate in not only football but in all sports at school all across the country.

Bear Bryant was very instrumental in changing how Alabama thought not just about black football players but how they thought about African Americans in general. His self sacrifice paved the way for African American students to attend college and to earn a degree and better their life. Without Bryant many people think that the covert racism that many blacks faced in those days would have continued to perpetrate, and would have slowed the civil rights movement and advances for all minorities. Although many people don’t think of Bear Bryant as a civil rights leader, in some ways he was one, for the advances in football he made. He gave many African Americans opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to have. For all the wrong that was racism in the south, Bear Bryant was one individual who stood up against it and defied society in the south.



Browning, Al. I Remember Paul “Bear” Bryant: Personal Memories of College Football’s Most Legendary Coach, as Told by the People Who Knew Him Best. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2001. Print.

Morton,, Jason. “Bear’s ’58 Team Reunites, Recalls Tide’s Turning Point to Success |” Latest Alabama News, Sports, Weather | The Tuscaloosa News | Tuscaloosa, AL. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <;.

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