The day the game changed

Published 11:07 pm Thursday, December 4, 2008

When St. Jude football players Calvin Leashore and Harold Smiley walked into Bryant-Denny Stadium to take on Gordo for the 1968 Class 2A state title, they did not think of themselves as trailblazers.

But as fate would have it, they — in addition to other participants — were honored for their participation prior to the Class 3A state title game on Thursday.

“The men who played in that game were trailblazers of sorts, and didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into,” said AHSAA Communications Director Ron Ingram,

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It helped pave the way for a relatively smooth transition into integration in the state of Alabama.”

At that time, there were two public school athletic organizations in the state. The Alabama High School Athletic Association served historically white schools, and the Alabama Interscholastic Athletic Association served historically black schools.

The 1968 Merger Act forced the two organizations to merge into the AHSAA. The merging of organizations marked the state’s first integrated state title game. Saint Jude was an all-black Catholic school, and Gordo was all-white.

“At that time we didn’t know the significance of what was happening,” said Leashore, a Selma native and resident. “We went to try and be state champions.”

Tension and outbreaks of violence were a possibility. Saint Jude players viewed Tuscaloosa as a Ku Klux Klan hotbed.

“At that time, in that climate, not everybody wanted these associations to merge,” said Ingram. “A lot of people (were against) the idea of black and white children playing games together and against each other.”

But the worries were for naught. The game transpired without incident, and Gordo handed St. Jude its first loss in more than two years in a 27-6 win.

“Looking back on the game, I don’t think that the players that I talked with expected anything bad about it,” said Smiley. “I would hope that it had a great impact showing that the two teams from different conferences — a black team and majority white team — could play on the field together and have no incidents and no incidents from anyone in the crowd.”

Like their players, the coaches did not consider the game’s impact on racial boundaries. They were focused on winning a state championship.

“We had no idea of the impact of an all-black team playing an all-white team,” said former St. Jude assistant coach James Durry. “We knew where we were going. We knew that part of the country was saturated with the KKK. But we knew the coaches (at Gordo), and they had their boys saturated with sportsmanship.”