Players from the National Football League have recently made headlines for kneeling during the national anthem. Several objected to President Donald Trump’s comments that players who kneel in protest should lose their jobs.
This practice began during last year’s season, when Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, knelt during the “Star Spangled Banner” to protest discrimination and the treatment of Americans of color.
Fifty years ago, however, the spotlight was on college football players from the University of Kentucky for a different issue that involved race.
On Sept. 30, 1967, UK’s football team became the first in the Southeastern Conference to integrate.
By donning his helmet, pads and Wildcat blue in a game against Mississippi, Nate Northington became the first African-American to play in an SEC football game. Although Kentucky lost and Northington suffered an injury, he made history on that field.
Greg Page, an African-American defensive end, was also on that UK team. Sadly, Page died the night before the game from injuries he sustained during an earlier practice.
In the newest issue of The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, historian S. Zebulon Baker explains that Northington’s mother, Flossie, knew the risks that her son faced. She told Gov. Ned Breathitt that, “If I find out that his life is in danger by playing football in them southern states in any way, I will be forced to take action to haul him to someplace else where he won’t have to be abused.”
“To be perfectly blunt,” she also asked Breathitt, “will he be safe when he plays in such states as Mississippi?”
Mrs. Northington’s fears were not without reason. Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg, who joined her son in integrating the UK football squad, later faced racial epithets and death threats.
Once UK broke the SEC’s color barrier, other teams followed. Tennessee was next in 1968, with Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Georgia integrating over the next several years. LSU and Ole Miss finally had black players take the field in 1972.
Today, and in reaction to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, some commentators have said that they do not want politics mixing with sports.
Politics, social protest and sports, however, have always gone hand-in-glove.
From Muhammad Ali protesting the Vietnam War to U.S. Olympic medalists giving the Black Power salute, athletes with a national stage and a social conscience have used their platforms to try to implement change.
With the University of Kentucky spurring the desegregation of SEC football, is it not fortunate that UK injected politics into sports by integrating their football team? Moreover, if UK integrated in 1968 and it took five years for LSU and Ole Miss to accept black players, how long would full integration have taken if Kentucky had not signed and played Northington?
In 1955, Baker relates, a Georgia politician said that interracial athletics “is a breaking down of the barriers which must be maintained here in the preservation of our way of life.” Therefore, UK’s decision to integrate their team was not just about football. It was also a step toward fairness, justice and racial equality.
Baker writes that “no one knew what awaited these pioneering black athletes, or their university, inside the SEC itself.” Conversely, we do not yet understand the impact of NFL players engaging in civil disobedience.
However, we do know that looking at similar issues through an historical lens can show the broader societal implications of when athletes turn playing fields into political platforms.
All Kentuckians should be proud that our state’s flagship university — and Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg — bravely worked to erase the SEC’s racial line.
As Northington said, “History had been made, the ‘color barrier’ had been broken, the door had been opened, and the SEC would never be the same.”
If sports is, as some argue, a microcosm of society, it appears that additional doors may be opened soon. At least we hear someone knocking.
Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s history advocate.