Books
4:29 pm
Mon January 21, 2008

All Guts and No Glory: An Alabama Coach's Memoir of Desegregating College Athletics

This memoir is more cameo than epic and Elder's story might have been told better. But it is fascinating to see how he was determined to put his experiences on the record and name names. And we should bear in mind this all happened in the 1970s, not the 1930s.

The full story of integration and the civil rights movement in Alabama is being told, bit by bit. Books such as Diane McWhorter's Carry Me Home and Wayne Greenhaw's The Thunder of Angels cover the major upheavals in Birmingham and Montgomery, but smaller, narrow-scope memoirs such as All Guts and No Glory fill in other parts of the picture.

Bill Elder's story really begins in the autumn of 1965 when, at the tender age of 23, he got the job of Head Basketball Coach, Athletic Director, Intramural Director, and Head of the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at the newly built Northeast State Junior College in Rainesville, Alabama. Elder had been born in a white middle-class family in Birmingham and raised there until the age of three, but then his immediate family moved to Ohio. It was on trips back to Birmingham over the next fifteen years that Elder learned of Jim Crow?the segregated water fountains and bathrooms, the balcony at the movies, the back of the bus, and forbidden lunch counters.

Elder played football, baseball, and basketball in high school in Ohio, but chose to play college basketball for Baptist Howard, now Samford, in Birmingham, graduating in 1964. Elder tells of his coach, one Virgil Ledbetter, who actually encouraged the players to brawl and, when the team learned on the bus that President Kennedy had been killed, told his boys, "If that telephone pole got struck by lightning, I would care about as much as I do about Kennedy getting killed. . . . I never could stand that S.O.B."

Under Elder, the basketball program at Northeast was thriving and then, in Elder's fourth year, the president asked him to recruit some black players. Elder was pleased and surprised but a little suspicious. But Dr. Knox assured him: "You will have my full support."

The team did even better, but Elder came to believe that "Dr. Knox's plan was to use me as the major source of recruitment of black students. If things went badly, I would take the blame. On the remote chance that the effort succeeded, he could, of course, take the credit." It seems federal funding was involved.

Events on Sand Mountain, where Northeast is located, went badly. There had been a mythos of "no blacks on Sand Mountain after sunset," and outside of Cullman there had even been a billboard to that effect. The local Klan was not pleased to see Northeast's team integrated, and one crisis followed another. First, two black players were attacked on the street. Then, a few days later, the players arrived at their rental house and found the stove gas jets on. The smell alerted them so they did not flip the light switch. If they had, the spark might have blown them all to pieces. Several times, drivers tried to "run him off the road." Elder checked his and his wife's cars daily for bombs. Legislation may have been passed in Washington, but it did not seem to apply to Sand Mountain.

Throughout this scary ordeal the athletes showed calm courage and determination. To Dr. Knox and the rest of the faculty, however, Elder "didn't really exist." There was "a mass exodus from the faculty table" whenever Elder sat down for coffee. Also, disappointingly, Elder was "offered little comfort and no support whatever" from his pastor and fellow church members.

In August of 1973, Elder left Northeast for graduate school in Tuscaloosa and a long and successful career as a coach and administrator. He is now retired.

This memoir is more cameo than epic and Elder's story might have been told better. But it is fascinating to see how he was determined to put his experiences on the record and name names. And we should bear in mind this all happened in the 1970s, not the 1930s.

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