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The 1963 'Game Of Change,' Or Lack Thereof


This morning, we're remembering two moments from the civil rights movement. One involved the basketball team at Loyola University Chicago. They are, of course, the Cinderella story in this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. They also had an amazing run 55 years ago and made headlines for a different reason. In 1963, Loyola Chicago played a tournament game against Mississippi State. Sports journalism professor Kevin Blackistone recently wrote about the game for the Washington Post, and he says it almost didn't happen.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: The state of Mississippi at that time basically had a rule that said white teams were not allowed to play against black teams. Mississippi State, which had missed out on a couple of NCAA tournament opportunities in previous years because of that rule, snuck out of the state in the dark of night to go all the way to Lansing, Mich., to play in the first round of the NCAA tournament that year against Loyola, which happened to have four black starters. So it was a violation of Mississippi Jim Crow laws. And it really made for a fascinating story. And Loyola would go on to win the national championship.

GREENE: Well, so was Mississippi State doing this to make a statement about civil rights or mostly just because they wanted to keep playing in the tournament, didn't matter who they were playing, but they're like, we're not going to let a law get in the way of us?

BLACKISTONE: Well, you know, a half a century later, it has become lore that Mississippi State may have been trying to make a statement. But when you look back, they really weren't. They were a little ticked off that they hadn't been able to play in the NCAA tournament. They thought they had a good team. Their coach, Babe McCarthy, wanted to get them that opportunity. He thought he was a really good coach, and he wanted to win.

GREENE: And this is where some of the feel-good narrative starts to break down in your mind. I mean, this was called the Game of Change in the midst of the civil rights movement. What, if anything, did it change?

BLACKISTONE: It really didn't change very much. Some of the most horrific incidents in racial violence in this country that happened in the state of Mississippi happened after that game - the horrible beating that Fannie Lou Hamer suffered, the murders of the three civil rights workers, the assassination of NAACP leader in Mississippi, Medgar Evers, happened after this game, James Meredith, his march in which he was shot. So there were a number of things that happened after this particular Game of Change, which evidenced the fact that not really that much changed in the state of Mississippi.

GREENE: You actually went a bit farther in writing about this and talking about some deeper lessons about the role of people who are white who make sacrifices. Can you tell me what you were really digging into there?

BLACKISTONE: Sure. Well, we've been involved in a lot of mythmaking in sports writing, particularly when it comes to the role of sports stories in the civil rights movement and in social justice. We kind of make white figures the central figure. So Babe McCarthy, the white coach of the all-white Mississippi State team, gets talked a lot about being a conduit for making this happen.

GREENE: What would you say is the larger lessons about how we deal with civil rights from this story?

BLACKISTONE: I think we have to look at it in context. I think we have to look at it in terms of history. It troubles me every year at the star the baseball season where we talk about Jackie Robinson and he gets lionized at these games. And it is as if the three generations of black men who were unable to play this game, it gets lost. And so we only think of 1947 going forward. We heroize the white men who helped him come into the game, who shook his hand on the field. And we have all but forgotten those who kept the Jackie Robinsons out of the game for so, so long.

GREENE: Hey, Kevin, thanks so much for chatting, as always.

BLACKISTONE: Hey, thank you, David.

GREENE: Sports commentator Kevin Blackistone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.