It becomes necessary to be upfront about the topic at hand when said topic is as bizarre as this one was. Of course, the other associated events around the time were important as well, in the long run, but the 1956 Sugar Bowl was certainly the hottest-button topic around the Flats in the moment.
As we near the first anniversary of the beginning of this column, I’ve been doing some reflecting. Obviously, we’ll keep working through history, be it looking at general history, Tech figures, traditions, or football and other sports, but, as I thought about the directions in which we might wander this year, the trend we settled into a year ago still largely rings true. Often, it seems hard to marry the sports with the Institute history, or people with the stories of the physical plant, and so on. However, 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. To borrow a phrase from a solid little show produced by the mothership, welcome to a moment in history.
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 it serve him well during the Sugar Bowl standoff in late 1955.
As is custom, we largely follow Wallace’s narrative in Dress Her in White and Gold, since he was a primary source to these events and he writes for love of the Institute, all of which sounds like a way to skirt the academic prose of Engineering the New South, however, they aren’t as detailed, though they are more comprehensively sourced.
Anyways, following the 1956 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, and the Board of Regents was asked to interfere. 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.
Just kidding, 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, nore 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.”
Well, 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 the night before, which was joined by bystanders as well, and resulted in property damage to the state capital and several effigies hung, eventually hanging 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 to 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.”
It was a matter for the Athletic Director, independent of the Board of Regents and Van Leer, even. He had been ill prior, but was well enough to let people know where Tech stood.In the Board of Regents meeting, it was decided that teams of the state universities would respect the laws and rules of wherever they were playing, but in Georgia strict segregation would be enforced, in a ruling that was not struck down for eight years. The Board was forced to retract 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 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.
Tech played the 1956 Sugar Bowl. And by the end of January, the strong and stubborn, yet chronically sick Blake Van Leer was dead of a cerebral hemorrhage.
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.