Originally created 10/30/00

Team bridged racial divide



It was a movie script that could have been written in almost any city, even Augusta.

After all, there was hardly a city untouched by controversy or protest when schools began to racially integrate in the early 1970s.

Alexandria, Va., happened to be the city chosen in a recent blockbuster movie to spotlight this volatile subject, but the themes and characters of the movie Remember the Titans also can be found in the yellowing yearbooks of local high schools.

The movie, which is based on a true story, stars Denzel Washington as the black head coach of a newly integrated high school football team at T.C. Williams High School in 1971.

The film centers around the team's fight to win the state championship on the field and to overcome racial differences off the field.

When coaches Danny Mitchell and James McRae stepped onto Westside High School's newly christened football practice field in 1970, they faced the same obstacles.

Westside had just opened as an integrated school, taking students from the then all-black Tutt High School and the all-white Academy of Richmond County.

That year, the team got nowhere near the state championship game, said Mr. Mitchell, the head coach for that season.

"Even though we didn't win games, we were able to hold it together," he said. "I'd have to give (Mr. McRae) the credit."

Before the season started, the coaching staff expected tension, said Mr. McRae, the team's assistant coach.

The staff discussed strategies for dealing with prejudices that they thought would spill over onto the field, he said.

"The coaches, we talked about family, that this was a family and we've got to work together," Mr. McRae said.

"Later, we spent long hours talking to the kids, talking about relationships between the blacks and whites, that it's here, we've got to deal with it."

But an unexpected incident eased the tension early on, Mr. Mitchell said.

"At first we played in a cow pasture next to an asphalt company. Three or four practices in, something at the asphalt company exploded, spewing soot and dust all over the field - we were all black," he said.

"I'll never forget that. It was the first time we had all come together."

Surprisingly, the two coaches said, the players handled the racial differences better than anyone expected.

"Even though we had the white kids from the upper echelons, and the black kids from off the hill it, they worked together," Mr. McRae said.

"I think it all boiled down to that they wanted to win, and they couldn't separate themselves from each other if they wanted to win."

It was the year before protests heated up in Augusta about implementing busing to integrate all of Augusta's schools.

A U.S. district judge's order of forced busing was met with calls for school boycotts and public protests.

"This isn't just a fight about schools, but about the biggest crisis in America today," said John Fleming, president of the Richmond County Board of Education in 1971, while calling for the public to disregard the busing court order.

But at Westside, where students were already adjusting to the "crisis," football players of both races ate pre-game meals together. White players gave rides home to black teammates who had no cars.

Even the players' parents, who took longer to adjust to the racially mixed team, warmed up to the change.

"You could kind of see an attitude," Mr. McRae said. "And after they saw the attitude that they had did not develop among the players, they fell right in."

But not every aspect of this harmonious season met Hollywood's idea of happy endings.

The way integration played out, even at Westside, left less opportunity for black coaches to secure head coaching jobs.

Mr. McRae, previously the head coach at Tutt, said he would have liked to have been considered for the position when Westside opened. Instead, he signed on as assistant coach.

"Before integration we had over 100 black coaches in the state of Georgia; today you may not have but 15 outside of Atlanta," said David Dupree, who coached at Lucy C. Laney High School in the 1970s.

"Integration really hurt the black coach," he said.

Westside's first season unfolded without any racially charged incidents.

The tensions that pervaded the rest of society were not evident under the helmets of a high school football team.

The protest cries that were dividing a nation were drowned out by rallying cries at Friday night football games.

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.



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