In the late 1960s, a group of student-athletes sacrificed their college and future pro careers by speaking out against a system of racial discrimination on the Syracuse University football team. They came to be called the “Syracuse 8.” Their demands included a desire for better medical care, stronger academic support for African-American student-athletes, a fair system for making the starting team and racial integration of the coaching staff. Met largely with resistance at the time, 36 years later, in 2006, the university recognized the Syracuse 8 with the Chancellor’s Medal for Courage.
Last month, six members of the Syracuse 8 met up in Harlem to celebrate the release of a new book about their lives, Leveling the Playing Field: The Story of the Syracuse Eight, by David Marc with a foreword by NFL great (and Syracuse alum) Jim Brown. Before the panel event, The Players’ Tribune had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall as the six living members of the Syracuse 8 reflected on their legacy.
Dana Harrell, Class of 1971, holds a bachelor’s degree in Arts and Sciences and a Master’s degree in Public Administration. He is an attorney and principal of Harrell Associates, a real estate consulting firm:
In 1969, Syracuse wasn’t any different from any other major college football program in the country. The only difference was that a few of us guys said: Just because everyone is doing it wrong, that doesn’t make it right.
One thing should be clear. Syracuse is now, and was then, a great university. I love Syracuse. I loved it then and love it now. But it was a product of the times. One of the critical issues not to forget is that it was Syracuse that taught us to be independent thinkers and stand for what we believed in. That’s what we did. So, this is also a part of Syracuse’s journey. Very few universities would have the courage and integrity to circle back, this many years later, and say, “You guys got it right.”
A. Alif Muhammad, known as Al Newton of the Class of 1971, is an Instructional Coach in education for the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice System, an active member of Masjid Al-Qur’an Boston and a student of the Muslim American Logic Institute (MALI):
Look at the four demands we were asking for. The first one was: better medical treatment for all athletes — not just the black players, all college athletes.
Demand number two: we wanted better access to academics for all athletes. At that time, we had athletes that would take courses in the summertime on the techniques of basketball and football, taught by the coaches. You’d get a grade and you’d be eligible to play, but by the time it came to graduate, you didn’t meet the school’s requirements. I was a civil engineering major and they wanted me to take a reading course! That was offensive.
Demand three was fairness. We wanted an equitable and transparent system for determining when black players played. We were saying: Give us a shot based on our ability. One week you’d be the second string fullback and then it’d be time to travel to an away game and all of a sudden you’d be the third string defensive end, and left off the team bus.
The fourth demand was to diversify the coaching staff. Since 1893, Syracuse didn’t have a coach of color — in any sport. We were simply asking them, “Why won’t you recruit an African American coach for the football team?” Our story is a story that we’d like to reach the youth. There are essential words in our story about brotherhood, commitment and sacrifice. We as a group want to share with today’s youth: you can do the right thing; it’s okay to do the right thing.
John Lobon, Class of 1973, earned his undergraduate degree in History. In 2005, he was appointed by the governor to the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. He retired after 29 years from the State of Connecticut as a Senior Vice President of the Connecticut Development Authority:
If you want to talk about a firestorm, that was the firestorm — demanding to diversify your coaching staff by hiring a black coach. [Head Coach] Ben [Schwartzwalder] made his statement clear when he said: “I looked for one on the way home and I looked for one on the way back from coaching and I didn’t find any.” That’s how serious he was about doing anything. And that’s what turned it into an white and black issue.
You have to look at the time. The ’60s. If you looked at the predominant white universities, black students weren’t attending those. So we felt like somebody had to open that door. I used that as a vehicle for me. I looked at one of my favorite athletes, Jim Brown, who went to Syracuse — if I could go where he went, that was a sell in itself.
That time period was all about change. We were living MLK’s message in the sense of “change.” But it wasn’t going to be easy. We all experienced the riots. I experienced them in my home town. I watched them burn my community down. I listened to what Dr. King was saying. I didn’t just let it gloss over me. King was saying to us that we need to go places we haven’t been, so I took it to heart. There were going to be some sacrifices. And when we made that choice to sacrifice, we didn’t choose it for our individual selves, we chose it for all those who were going to follow.
So it wasn’t about me, it was about we — who we were, and who we would hoped this university would become. We’re talking about 45 years of a story, but I think it’s just as relevant today as it was 45 years ago. When they say history repeats itself … yeah it’s repeating itself. But as everyone here has said, I don’t harbor any bitterness. I forgave Syracuse University long ago: “I left my heart but had to take my soul. Now I’ve returned and you’ve given me back my heart, and now I feel I can let you be a part of my soul.”
Gregory Allen, Class of 1972, is a retired Regional Manager for Liberty Mutual in the Midwest, where he worked for more than 30 years. He serves on several boards and is active in his church:
As we were making our demands, what do you suppose the white ball players are doing? Their perception was that we were trying to derail the football team and cause a stir. But we weren’t. We were trying to help the white players as much as ourselves. Yes, one demand we had was for a black coach, but everything else was for the team in general — better medical care, and so on. We were taken aback by the fact that: How come the white ball players had now turned against us and didn’t want us back on the team and were threatening to boycott if we came back on the team? In the end, the chancellor’s report stated that there was institutional racism at Syracuse — but we, the victims, were being more victimized by our teammates who we were trying to help. It wasn’t a matter of trying to split the team or just being rebellious, it was a matter of trying to make the university that we loved greater and better.
Syracuse was formed in 1870 by the Methodist Church so that people of color, Native Americans and women would have an opportunity to go to a university. The first class at Syracuse was something like 43 percent women and people of color. So what happened since 1870, when there were only 1 percent people of color when we attended?
This is our story. I think when some people see the story of the Syracuse 8, right away there’s a defensive mechanism that comes up, as though there is going to be some vitriol from us about what happened 45 years ago. We’re past that. The book is a record of our accomplishments and a record of an event in our life. It doesn’t reflect an attitude of anger or bitterness amongst us. There isn’t any. We love Syracuse. We bleed orange. We’re loyal Syracuse alums and fans. But the book is about an incident in our lives that we’re glad that someone saw and decided to tell about. In fact, actually it’s been a growing experience for me and I think for all of us.
Today when we speak to youth, one of the things we talk about is: If Plan A is to be a pro athlete, Plan B is usually the educational piece, getting a degree. But as we talk to youth, we say: Well, step back for a minute, even if you are a pro athlete, are you going to be an athletes for 5 years, 10 years? Your working career is more like 40, 50 years. What happens to the other 35 or so years? And so when we talk to them, we’re trying to let them know: you need to flip the script. Plan B really should be Plan A, that’s the plan you’ll be working with most of your life. This whole experience taught me: don’t let that education go. That’s what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life. And now today we’re sitting here, 45 years later, talking about a boycott that’s extended both our athletic and intellectual careers.
Ronald J. Womack, Class of 1971, earned a Special Education degree, followed by a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology, and a Director of Special Education license from the University of Minnesota. He was a graduate instructor at the University of Minnesota for two years, and he served as a Special Education teacher in the St. Paul Public School system for 40 years until he retired in 2014:
In the ’50s and ‘60s, college teams still operated under the old quota system mold. Therefore, teams were restricted to playing just one or two black players on the starting team. The conflict at Syracuse arose when we spoke up and complained. Historically, Syracuse was ahead of its time, in comparison to other universities. It had a history of playing a few prominent black athletes in the 1950s — Avatus Stone, Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, and others. If Syracuse had continued to integrate, it would have stayed ahead of its time. During the civil rights movement of the late ‘60s, views and events started to change, but Syracuse did not keep up with pace of integrating the starting players on its team.
Syracuse recruited six black athletes during my freshman year in 1967. I was shocked, and I said to the other black players, “Where are the rest of us?” I was under the impression there would be a lot more of black athletes. While recruiting us, the coaches always emphasized the success of the many great black athletes that had come before us — Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little, John Mackey, Jim Nance, and so on. The inflated image about the many black athletes that were recruited and on the starting team at Syracuse was widely discrepant from the actual number of black athletes recruited each year; and discrepant from how many black athletes that were truly allowed to play on the first team to start each game.
The tension about playing “too many” black athletes in the starting line-up during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s was documented in the movie about Syracuse football, which was titled The Express. At the end of one the games, the West Virginia University coach asked Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder, “How many black athletes are you playing?” Coach Schwartzwalder said, “Two or three.” The WVU coach responded, “Ben, don’t play too many blacks, you will lose your team.” In 1967, our freshman year, the Syracuse 8 members were confronted with these lingering attitudes and quota systems, which eventually led to our boycott of 1970.
The members of the Syracuse 8 were highly competent and skilled athletes, who had the potential and the goal to play football in the NFL. The loss of playing football hurt deeply and curtailed us from achieving our athletic goals. Although we suffered this great loss, we did not lose sight of ourselves as college students with the purpose of obtaining an education. Consequently, we graduated from Syracuse with various bachelor degrees. Also, the football crisis motivated us to shift our focus from our athletic prowess to our intellectual prowess. Such a shift in focus is manifested in our professional achievements after graduating from Syracuse University.
Clarence “Bucky” McGill, Class of 1972, earned an undergraduate degree in History and a Master’s in city planning from Howard University. He is the Juvenile Enterprise Manager for the Virginia Dept. of Juvenile Justice and is active as a high school and AAU basketball coach:
We all thought we had the skill to move on to the next level professionally in football, but it was stripped away because we spoke up. Today, we deal with youth all the time in our communities, and when their talents are stripped away, for whatever reason, many of them fall apart and they go in the wrong direction. I’m proud of those of the “Syracuse 8” with me here today, who have advanced degrees, attorneys, PhDs. When the athletic doors were shut to us at 18, 19, 20 years old, we made an adjustment. And that adjustment was education, and it was based on what Syracuse taught us. It was all those mentors, instructors, colleagues, friends and confidantes, both black and white, who we relied on. But I never want to forget to remind people that three of us aren’t here: John Godbolt, Richard Bulls and Duane Walker. They’ve passed away. They were our good friends and teammates too — and the Syracuse 8’s legacy is not complete without them.
This is the Chancellor’s Medal of Courage that we received. We still have the desire to keep pushing. The majority of the proceeds of this book are going to the scholarship fund for black and Latino students at Syracuse. That is a powerful statement we wanted to make. We all decided to do that. We want to keep pushing to make sure our sacrifice is not in vain. We have our first Syracuse 8 Scholarship recipient, in May 2015 in Information Technology. So that’s where the progress is. We’re still continuing.