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Rearview Revisited: Segregation and the Sugar Bowl

“I am 60 years old and have never broken a contract. I do not intend to start now.” - Tech President Blake Van Leer

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Bobby Dodd and Franklin Brooks, circa mid 1950s.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (

A Note from Jake: I didn’t like how I did this when I wrote about it over a couple weeks back in May. So we’re taking a look back, adding a bunch of new information I’ve gleaned from sources since, clarifying some points, and giving it in chronological order, rather than the weird back and forth from last time. Hope this reads well. Pretty pleased with how it turned out, it’s definitely more thorough this time around. Enjoy!

“The South stands at Armageddon.” Gov. Marvin Griffin, November, 1955

Those words, backing up a bogus stance though they may be, are both definitive and not chosen by accident. Georgia Tech in 1955 was a team on the edge of destiny. However, unlike their 1952 counterparts, this team’s most notable moment wouldn’t come necessarily on the gridiron. They were defined by their talents on the field, and, yet, their season became remembered not for winning a prestigious bowl, but for the circus surrounding the January game that rolled in during the waning days of November. Tech’s season was defined by a young black man from Pittsburgh - iconoclast and star to some, revolutionary and benchwarmer to others. But to seemingly everyone on the Flats, no reason not to play a football game.

Seven decades ago, the Georgia Institute of Technology was an all-white, all-male school. This, at the time, wasn’t terribly unusual. Such were the sad facts of life in those days. However, in the close to seventy years since 1952, the admission of the first female students, Georgia Tech has grown into one of the most inclusive degree-granting engineering institutions in the world. While this change is incredible, it is important to realize the fits and starts along the path to inclusivity that the state, region, and country have stumbled over in the course of the twists and turns on the march of history.

Last time we checked in on the happenings on the Hill, Van Leer was pushing through the Alexander Memorial Coliseum and putting the wheels in motion behind the campus that would become Southern Polytechnic. The quote from Wallace, that “Van Leer was a fighter who battled to the bitter end for what he believed but he always accepted defeat or victory with equal graciousness,” stands to reason, in light of all the progress Van Leer was able to bring, from co-education to facilities, and faculty to curriculum. Wallace notes that nowhere would that trait serve him well in late 1955.

Tech finished the 1954 football season with a win in the Cotton Bowl over Arkansas, the school year with a handful of coeds on campus, and the last calendar year of the dynamic and progressive president Blake Van Leer’s tenure with a physical plant slowly spilling westward over Hemphill Avenue.

In the Yellow Jackets’ nationally-televised season opener on NBC, Tech led off their year with a top-ten matchup when the no. 10 home team hosted no. 9 Miami. That convincing 14-6 victory sent the Jackets rocketing up the polls, landing in the penultimate spot in time to visit Florida. Whereas past trips to the Swamp yielded debilitating, title-chance-wrecking losses to underwhelming Gator squads, the no. 19 rank of the home team meant that not only was it a win, it was a quality SEC win over a ranked team for the second week in a row. Florida had never meant much on the national scene, and, yet, here they were. The win, though, somehow, yielded a one position drop in the standings, but, no less, the Jackets were 2-0 heading into the familiar early-season matchup against Southern Methodist.

In the middle of the century, the Jackets and the Mustangs were frequent opponents. Despite the private, Texan, religious nature of the SMU campus, Tech and their hosts were more similar than a glance might indicate - Southern, conservative, and in up-and-coming cities. Bobby Dodd, as noted in Dodd’s Luck, had a certain predilection for Texas, as fate would have it. Thus, the series in Dallas wasn’t too surprising. And, though the University of Texas could never lure Dodd away - he claimed it the only school he’d ever have considered leaving Tech for - Southern Methodist managed to get his team to the Cotton Bowl for the second time in four games, when you include the previous year’s bowl game. Dodd was, they said, an “honorary Texan.”

The Jackets were again rewarded for their efforts with another demotion in the polls before heading out on the road bound for the Death Valley in Baton Rouge. LSU had been having a middling year, and Tech’s defense held tight in a 7-0 victory against their conference foes, as was typical of the grind-it-out, outlast-the-other-guys style of play that commonly defined life on the Flats in the middle of Bobby Dodd’s career. Again, Tech was rewarded with a dropped spot in the polls. The finicky nature of polling didn’t make much sense in the 1950s, either.

For the first time in a few years, longtime rival Auburn was back to being their usual respectable selves, sitting at no. 17 coming into the game in Grant Field. It’s interesting to look at a school with successes as sustained and heights so high as the Auburn Tigers and look at the years where the bottom just plain fell out from under them. Tech lost a nail-biter in front of a sellout crowd, 14-12. It was their first loss since October of the previous year. The next weekend, Tech, now down at no. 13 in the country, blew the doors off of a barely-relevant Florida State team, completing the exceedingly rare feat of playing each team in the Florida-Miami-Florida State triad.

They were rewarded with a one place bump in the polls in time to host Duke for homecoming, a sentence seemingly nearly as common as “Tech played Duke in football.” In the days before the dark ages of Duke football, Bill Murray’s squad was regularly in the hunt for a good bowl berth, and was Tech’s most common out-of-conference opponent. I’d argue that this is yet another reason Tech should feel more vitriol for the Blue Devils, but that argument seems to get lost sometimes. The Blue Devils rolled into town ranked 17th in the nation, and having finished with a winning record in 26 of the previous 27 seasons. Tech, in front of another huge crowd, smacked their guests and inched up the poll yet again.

Huge crowds were the expectation, rather than the norm, though. Homecoming, with the festivities of the Wreck Parade and the Freshman Cake Race, and other minor events, was no exception. In the days before professional sports, specifically NFL football, Tech was the biggest game in town. And, with expectations high, a well regarded opponent, and homecoming festivities, Georgia Tech football had plenty of eyes on them. Filling the old horseshoe at Grant Field was easy. Saturday college football, even for a bustling city like Atlanta, was an integral part of life.

The next week would be perhaps more damning than the Auburn game - a 7-7 tie to an unranked Tennessee Volunteers team. Said Tennessee team had lost to the Duke squad Tech had just shut out 27-0 earlier in the season. Granted, they finished at 6-3-1, a respectable line, but Tech should have by all measures won the game. Naturally, Tech slid back down to the no. 11 position in time to head to Birmingham to face Alabama.

In a historical aberration, Alabama won no football games in the year of 1955. Luckily, Tech was not the exception to that ignominious record. The brackish Crimson Tide had little in terms of answers for the dominant Yellow Jackets, who won 26-2. The school in Athens, who would go on to finish barely ahead of Alabama in the conference standings, was up next, and took their own loss 21-3 in Atlanta. Tech finished ranked no. 7 in the AP Poll, after a 9-1-1 season. Following the regular season, Georgia Tech accepted a bid to play Pittsburgh in the 1956 Sugar Bowl. As Wallace notes, Tech officials assumed it to be permissible, as the school in Athens had played several games against teams with both white and black players, and Pittsburgh had one black player on their team. Tech was set to travel to Tulane Stadium for the game on New Years.

Or, at least, it was set until a wire to Bobby Dodd made the front page of the Atlanta papers.

The Board of Regents, led by Robert Arnold, was asked by the governor to interfere.

Perhaps one of the most momentous and turbulent times in the long arc of politics, society, culture, and sports in the history of the state happened in late November 1955. It’s somewhat shocking to me that the Wikipedia page for this season lacks even a footnote about any details from the season. However, Wallace and McMath both make it pretty clear - Tech was outraged at the prospect of not being able to play Pittsburgh. Why, exactly, though, is worth exploring more. This incident is one of the moments where the stories of football, Institute history, tales of larger-than-life Tech figures, and the grand-scheme history of college football, the state, region, and country all collide.

Robert Arnold, noting that it had happened before and was out of his purview, chose not to act on the matter. However, the Governor, Marvin Griffin, seeing the news, sent a harsh rebuttal to Arnold. His message stated:

“It is my request that athletic teams of the University System of Georgia not be permitted to engage in contests with other teams where the races are mixed on such teams or where segregation is not required among spectators at such events,” (Gov. Marvin Griffin, 1955).

It seems the governor did not mince words, and that was that.

Nope, he wasn’t done, as his words became increasingly hyperbolic:

“The South stands at Armageddon. The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle. There is no more difference on the playing field than in the classrooms. One break in the dike and the relentless seas will rush in and destroy us. We are in this fight 100 percent; not 98 percent, nor 75 percent, not 64 percent - but a full 100 percent. An immediate meeting of the State Board of Regents to act on my request is vitally necessary at this time.”

So much for a leisurely trip to New Orleans. The Governor’s message went nationwide, immediately. The first reaction was a riot of Tech students at the state capitol in the middle of the night, which was joined by bystanders, and resulted in property damage to the state capital and several effigies burnt, including hanging one of the governor at his mansion. Signs, jeers, and chants conveyed their message - they were more than a little displeased. It took Tech alumnus Muggsy Smith to help police disperse the crowd. The Governor seemed unfazed, and had the boys arrested in the kerfuffle released. Of course, being national news, the Flats were swarmed with reporters of all strokes looking for a story, but all Van Leer offered was, “I am 60 years old and have never broken a contract. I do not intend to start now.” Some of the lessons learned dealing with press during the Sugar Bowl Riots would be put into use during campus integration in 1961, but that’s a story for another column.

As Governor Griffin knew, and certainly Bobby Dodd knew, the whole affair was more a matter for the Athletic Director, independent of the Board of Regents and Van Leer, really. Van Leer, despite having been ill prior, was still well enough to let people know where Tech stood. In the Board of Regents meeting, it was decided that teams representing state universities would respect the laws and rules of wherever they were playing, but in Georgia strict segregation would be enforced. This ruling would last for eight years. The Board was forced to walk back the actions of Tech students and apologize to the governor. In Athens and Emory alike, the peers of the men and women of Midtown hung effigies of their own. While the governor now called on the Tech boys to be punished, Van Leer stuck to his statement, even receiving a standing ovation in the faculty senate. To their credit, the Board of Regents stuck to its word, backwards as though it may have been.

There was a lot at stake in this deal, and it seems all the parties involved were aware of that fact. And yet, in the end, it seems reformers - and the was really only one true reformer on the Board of Regents back then - lost a lot more than they gained. The decision set a precedent in favor of continued discrimination. Based on the public response, though, it seemed like the majority, or at least a majority of the vocal responses, didn’t really mind. They didn’t care who they played. They wanted to be the very best at the game of football. Social issues can come second, and, when you look at the deal that was settled on, they mostly did. Or, at least, they could’ve been a lot better.

Clearly, the students, administration, and faculty vehemently supported the football team. Yet the wills of the state, led by the governor, did not want the Yellow Jackets in New Orleans. The thing is, though, a hefty chunk of the population of the host city didn’t want integrated football on their doorstep, either. All of this in the wake of not just Brown vs. Board of Education a few years earlier, but the Montgomery Bus Boycott just a few short months before, and it’s little surprise that tensions were high coming into the game.

Of course, it was pretty surprising that Pittsburgh had even been offered the opportunity to play Tech in the first place, as a team on the fence with three losses already. However, with West Virginia and Navy disappointing in previous showings, and reticence to schedule another all-SEC Sugar Bowl by pairing Ole Miss with the Yellow Jackets, it was the Panthers, with losses all to highly respectable teams, who would receive the second bid, setting up an intersectional game.

The questions of whether Bobby Grier should be allowed to play or whether Tech would be permitted to travel to play was forcefully put to rest by members of the Pitt community, civil rights leaders, and Georgia Tech students, athletes, and faculty, albeit for differing direct reasons. There’s a difference between doing something because it’s the right thing to do and doing something because of the game of football, after all. When the sun set on January 2nd, 1956, the Rose Bowl the day before may have quietly been one of the most diverse bowl games in history, but the Sugar Bowl became the first integrated bowl game to be played in the Deep South. That was arguably even more powerful.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that all of the students and fans enraged by the governor’s actions were caught up in a righteous rage in defense of an oppressed people. The sad truth is that a lot of them probably were only awoken to the issue by their unfair denial of a game of football, potentially. But, if that’s what it took to open their eyes to the bigoted hatred that the openly racist, and even hypocritical, decision represented? Keep in mind, Athens had played integrated teams in the past, and Georgia Tech had, too, when they ventured to Michigan in a rare game up north. But really, if it took sports for students, fans, and curiosity seekers to force themselves to reconcile their view, that’s why college football’s significance transcends just the game on the field. In the end, Tech played the game, and won. People rose up to make that change happen. Even if what they wanted first and foremost was just to watch some football.

Many correctly perceived this game as a bellwether for the future of integration in the United States, and none more so than Governor Griffin. And when they finally played the game, it generated nearly as much controversy as the teams had coming into the matchup.

The game was a defensive struggle through and through. The seven points Tech scored in the first quarter would be the only ones accrued all afternoon. However, Tech was only in the position to score in the first place due to a questionable pass interference call in their favor. Unsurprisingly, the penalty was on Grier. Of course, time sharpens opinions, and there is a camp that decided that it was purely Southern referee bias that decided the game for Georgia Tech through calls like this. However, both teams agreed to the intersectional official contingent beforehand, and the call was more inconclusive than blatantly bad, if the limited film is accepted to be a good angle. Regardless, the play was controversial, and absolutely figured into the final score. Tech wouldn’t complete a pass all game, a phrase at once warm and familiar to current fans, yet also dated. After a helpful offsides call, the quarterback, Wade Mitchell, was able to sneak it into the end zone for six and add another by way of the extra point. That would be all, as far as scoring goes.

That’s not to say it was smooth sailing from there, at all. The Jackets may have had a helpful bit of turnover luck, such as the fumble that set up their only score of the game, but Pittsburgh ran Tech ragged in comparison, moving up and down the field, yet never finding their way across the goal line. They found themselves the deepest in the Tech red zone one could possibly be and not have six points with time expiring on fourth down heading into halftime. If the Grier interference was the most controversial play of the game, then Franklin Brooks’ goal line stand keeping Pitt out of the end zone before halftime was the most consequential. Pitt’s next two drives to begin the third quarter got increasingly sloppy as the clock ticked away. The consequences of not scoring to close the first half became increasingly dire.

Tech wouldn’t score on their opportunities, either, and it took a lucky shirt-tail tackle to get Pittsburgh out of bounds with ten yards separating them from a chance to tie the game. The clock, which had been malfunctioning the whole afternoon, was reported by different players as being on different times. There was time for two, maybe three plays, the thought went. Pitt gained five yards. The officials waved their hands. Game over. The Panthers were threatening just five yards from the end zone.

In a highly suspect Sugar Bowl, Georgia Tech was crowned the winner.

Just as the Georgia state government granted Tech permission to play the game eventually on the condition that all future games within the state of Georgia be segregated, the Louisiana legislature mandated that teams in the Sugar Bowl come from more local origins, rather than be intersectional. A similar segregation law was passed in the city of New Orleans. A legacy of this rule can be traced to the current SEC/Big 12 tie-ins in non-playoff years, oddly enough, as ACC, SEC, and Southwest Conference - a forerunner to the modern Big 12 - would dominate the next few decades of Sugar Bowl play.

Ultimately, Brooks would be named the MVP of the game. His goal line stand proved the difference between a tie and a win for the Jackets, and that’s about as clear cut of a contribution as you can ask for. He would go on to play in the NFL before returning to the Flats under Pepper Rodgers, where he was being groomed as the successor to Tech’s great quarterback-turned-unexceptional coach. However, asbestos-related complications would bring about advanced lung cancer, and his tragic death - he never used tobacco and other common causes of lung cancers - would be one of the impetuses to the removal of the hazardous material from most common spaces in America. The bowl would go down as another great Bobby Dodd postseason win in a long list of them, and another shining example of his tough, stingy defense.

The most prominent domino to fall from the bowl, though, was obviously the story of Bobby Grier. It is by no small accident that this bowl game had a profound impact on the hearts and minds of many in Atlanta and across the Southeast. Perhaps this exposure to inequality, on a grand stage like big-time football, allowed them to finally rethink their deep-seated antipathies. Or, perhaps, they so desperately wanted to watch football, that they would riot for it. I’m inclined to believe the former to be more true, if not uniformly applicable. With a positive view of human nature, it is easier to believe that the populace would be moved by sport, by this egregious display of oblique and unwarranted antipathy, than to abandon their hypocritical views temporarily to watch some football. And for that, I thank Grier for his lasting impact on the school, the state, and the sport, and being the catalyst that may have inspired some people to think a little differently, even if their motivator was college football. The power of sports to better society is an underrated and understated benefit from the American sports hierarchy as it stands. Sports can be a vehicle to enact positive change - yet another interesting benefit of the unique position of high-profile athletics at major universities in America.

Tech played the 1956 Sugar Bowl, true to their contract. And by the end of January, the strong and stubborn, yet chronically sick Blake Van Leer was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. Legend has it is that the controversy is what helped kill him.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.