Black coaches victims of Jim Crow

by Jim Longworth

How poetic it would be for a mixed race president to perform a shotgun wedding between white racists and black coaches?

Several years ago Gene Cheek appeared on my “Triad Today” television program to promote his book, The Color of Love. His is the compelling true story of a white boy growing up in the Jim Crow South with a white mother and a black stepfather. Back then, and prior to 1967, interracial marriages were illegal in many states, including North Carolina. Cheek’s biological father had been physically abusive, leading his mother to seek a divorce. Eventually she fell in love with a black man and bore him a son. Soon after the birth of Gene’s step brother, a Forsyth County judge deemed Mrs. Cheek to be an unfit mother, and ordered that 12-year-old Gene be removed from the home. In time, North Carolina became civilized and women like Beth Cheek were eventually allowed to marry outside of their race without fear of retribution. And as the laws changed, so did attitudes.

A 2007 Gallup poll reported that 77 percent of Americans approved of interracial marriages (compared to only 4 percent in 1958), and in 2008, 43 percent of white voters elected a black man to live in a very White House. Yet, despite the apparent progress made in race relations, prejudice and discrimination are alive and well, especially in the deep South. The latest manifestation of that problem is the controversy over the dearth of black head coaches in major college football programs. Late last year, Auburn University came under fire from civil rights activists for hiring Iowa coach Gene Chizik, a white man with a losing record, over Turner Gill, a black coach with a winning record at Buffalo. At first, the criticisms and commentaries focused solely on the issue of discrimination based on race, that is, until ESPN broke the story within the story. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach reported that two SEC coaches had told him that Gill would never get the Auburn job because he is married to a white woman. Their predictions proved accurate. Shortly thereafter, Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong, an African American, told the Orlando Sentinel that he had been passed over for every head coaching job he applied for with Southern universities because his wife is white.

Clearly, white administrators and white alumni sports boosters rule college football in the South, and until that dynamic changes, men like Gill and Strong will continue to lose job opportunities, not because they are black, but because they didn’t marry within their own race. Certainly we have come a long way since the days when little Gene Cheek was taken from his white mother because she had taken up with a black man. But, sadly, those same prevailing sentiments and prejudices have taken longer to die out than we had hoped. The Black Coaches Association has filed a lawsuit to force major college football programs to hire more head coaches of color. But even if that effort results in a few more campuses opening their doors to black coaches, the nearly unspoken problem of prejudice against interracial marriages will continue. That’s because you cannot legislate for tolerance or against ignorance. It is ironic that our new president is, himself, a product of an interracial marriage, so I am hopeful he will make good on one of his promises. Early on in his campaign, Obama pledged to sit down with our enemies and affect change. Well, I know where he should start. Instead of flying to Iran or Cuba, I think he should hop a plane down to Alabama and make those Jim Crow college leaders eat some crow while he shames them into the 21 st century, and threatens to pull their federal funding if they don’t toe the line. How poetic it would be for a mixed-race president to perform a shotgun wedding between white racists and black coaches? Such reform is long over due, and an executive order could speed the process. The South may be strong on school ties, but who you tie the knot with should have no bearing on employment.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).