For every pioneer of the civil rights movement we know of — Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson — there are many stories that have not been told yet. Perry Wallace enrolled at Vanderbilt University in 1966, during a time of considerable tumult. Racial barriers were coming down, some by the vote and others by the force of protest. Yet resistance to desegregating collegiate athletics in the South remained fierce. When Wallace became the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), it was not without great sacrifices. According to biographer Andrew Maraniss, even Wallace himself debates whether he would do it all again if he had to; the struggle was that immense.
Perry Wallace became a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law in 1993, specializing in environmental law, corporate law and finance. Although it was known that he was the man who broke down the color barrier in the SEC, the full account of those turbulent years has not been fully explored until now. Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South spells it all out, both the tragedies and the victories of a time that seems unthinkable today, and of attitudes that are shamefully still present. It tells a story about America, as much as what’s on the news right now as it speaks to events in the mid-Sixties.
Maraniss is a partner at McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations in Nashville, TN, but his introduction to Wallace and his remarkable story came as a history student at Vanderbilt University in the early-1990s. As a recipient of the Fred Russell – Grantland Rice sportswriting scholarship, he was already indoctrinated into the world of sports journalism. Post-graduation, he worked in Vanderbilt’s athletic department as the associate director of media relations, and dealt primarily with the men’s basketball team.
Strong Inside has received glowing praise from journalists like Bob Woodward, Washington Post associate editor and author; Frank DeFord, an icon of sports writing and commentator for Sports Illustrated and NPR; and Howard Bryant, commentator for ESPN The Magazine and for NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon. Popdose was lucky to have a moment to speak with Maraniss about the joy and stress of being a first-time author, about sharing Perry Wallace’s inspirational story of courage with the world, and about how everything up to the author’s life at the moment seemed to point to telling this particular story.
This is your first book project, but you certainly didn’t go the easy route of the traditional sports biography. This is a story about sports, but only in part. Could you give me a brief about your book Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South?
The chance to write about sports but also about race and an interesting time in history was what appealed to me most in tackling this project. Perry Wallace’s story is fascinating not just because of the history he made as the first African American basketball player in the SEC, but more so because of the way his life parallels so many of the significant moments in civil rights history.
He started kindergarten in Nashville in 1954, the year of Brown vs. Board. As a seven-year-old, he was profoundly troubled by the murder of Emmett Till. As a 12-year-old, he would sneak downtown to watch the sit-ins at Nashville’s downtown lunch counters. He entered high school a week after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While he was in college, he met Stokely Carmichael, Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy and Fannie Lou Hamer, and he was interviewed by Sports Illustrated for a landmark series on sports and race in the summer of ’68, the year of the black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics.
In terms of basketball, when he reluctantly decided to become the Southeastern Conference’s first black basketball player, that meant he would be traveling to campuses like the University of Alabama, where Gov. Wallace had made his famous stand in the “schoolhouse door,” and Ole Miss, the school James Meredith had desegregated just a few years earlier.
Tying it all together, one of my favorite scenes comes late in the book, when Wallace is inducted into Vanderbilt’s athletic hall of fame. There in the crowd to greet him is Rev. James Lawson, the MLK disciple who had led those student sit-ins in Nashville a half-century earlier. Sports, civil rights, and history all came together when Lawson embraced Wallace that night.
How long did this book take you, and more than that, how long did it take you to decide this was the story you wanted to tell?
Strong Inside took me eight years to research and write, but the story is one I have had in me for the last 25 years. I first interviewed Perry Wallace when I was a sophomore history student at Vanderbilt in 1989. I was taking a black history class at the time and wrote a term paper on him. I also happened to be sports editor of the student newspaper, and wrote some columns arguing that the university should name its new student recreation center after Wallace.
We stayed in touch intermittently over the years, and it was in the fall of 2006, before I was married, before I had kids, before I had as much responsibility at my job at MP&F Public Relations in Nashville, that I decided that what I wanted to do with my spare time was write a book on Perry Wallace. I wrote Perry an email telling him I wanted to do this and asked whether he’d be willing to let me interview him extensively for the book. He told me to ‘go for it.’ It has been a labor of love ever since.
Perry has been incredibly generous with his time. I interviewed him in person several times in Washington, D.C., where he lives, and in Nashville, where I live and where he grew up and went to college. We also did several phone interviews and are in touch over email almost every week.
More important than the quantity of time I’ve spent with Perry is the quality. He is a brilliant person and I always come away from our conversations not just with a better understanding of his life and his story, but of human nature and race in America. I also interviewed more than 80 other people for the book, including former teammates, coaches, journalists, fellow students, roommates, professors and family members. And I spent a lot of nights after work at both the Vanderbilt library and the Nashville public library, where I loved digging through various archives and old newspaper clippings. I spent more than three years just doing interviews and research before I started writing the book.
During the initial research stages, which in part came while you were a student in a Black History class doing a paper on Perry Wallace, were there moments that jumped out at you, either for inspirational qualities or downright shock?
There are two research moments that stand out. The first, as you hinted, came when I was a student at Vanderbilt. It was the first time I ever heard Perry Wallace’s name. I was reading a student magazine article about him written by a kid a year ahead of me at Vanderbilt, Dave Sheinin (who is now an author and highly regarded sportswriter for the Washington Post). Dave described a scene Perry’s freshman year, where he and the other black player on that freshman team, Godfrey Dillard, were sitting in the Vanderbilt locker room during halftime of their game in Starkville against Mississippi State. The fans had been so obscenely racist in their treatment of Wallace and Dillard in the first half that as they sat listening to their coach give his halftime instructions, Wallace and Dillard clasped hands to gain the strength to go back out on the court. It was reading about that scene that first hooked me that Perry Wallace was someone I wanted to learn more about.
Fast forward more than 20 years to when I started doing research on the book. A wonderful historian at Vanderbilt, Lyle Lankford, suggested that there were some boxes I might want to look at that contained files from a race relations committee the former Vanderbilt chancellor Alexander Heard had created. Digging through one particular box, I came across the transcript of remarks Perry Wallace made to that committee in the summer of 1968. Reading Wallace’s own passionate, painful and poetic words about his experience at Vanderbilt to that point was thrilling. It was at that moment that I knew this could be a special book.
What were your experiences in speaking directly to Perry Wallace like?
One of the benefits of it taking eight years to write Strong Inside is that I was able to go back to Perry time and time again to dig a little deeper, to clarify certain things, to ask him about new things I was learning from other people. One of my favorite interviews took place in my car one afternoon as we drove around Nashville so he could show me the houses he grew up in, the schools he attended, the parks he played in.
Two stops on that drive really stand out. We were at an intersection in the Germantown neighborhood that I’ve been to many times because there’s a good restaurant on one corner. Perry told me that it was at that corner, as an elementary school student, that he was almost shot by a carload of white punks in the early 1950s. Then we drove by a thicket of trees and rocks in a park in his old neighborhood. We got out of the car and Perry pointed toward a big rock. He told me it was sitting on that rock that he made his final decision to attend Vanderbilt in 1966. Establishing a sense of place is important to any good story, and Perry provided that to me with anecdotes like these.
Part of the brief presented in regard to your book is that, even though Wallace accepted this role and he was going to be part of an instrumental group in helping break the color barrier in college basketball in the Southeastern Conference, it was with considerable reluctance. He surely knew about both the courage and the suffering Jackie Robinson went through with the Dodgers, along with so many others who broke through those societal divisions. Could you give me a glimpse into what was really being asked of him, or what he knowingly was getting into?
A great journalist in Atlanta named Sam Heys wrote a feature on Perry back in the late 1980s. He was the first person to place Perry’s story in the context of civil rights, and he noted that schools, buses, movie theaters and other public places were all desegregated before college sports in the South. Wallace did not enter into this bargain blindly or naively. As a kid, he often walked to his neighborhood library to read books about Southern lynchings. As I mentioned, he was about the same age as Emmett Till and his murder deeply troubled him. Once he got to Vanderbilt, Wallace said he looked ahead to the team’s road trips to the Deep South with what he described as “the deepest sense of dread.” He would imagine what was the worst thing that could happen, and the worst thing was getting shot and killed, either out on the court or around town before a game.
Every biography, when it is attempting to be a clear-eyed account of a life or time, is difficult. Authors have been accused of being too beholden to their subjects and bathing them in a messianic light, or they go the other way and get trashy because that’s an easy (and lucrative) remit. How did you walk that line to make sure you were being fair to Wallace and his story, but also to retain authenticity of the moment in question?
Any objective observer would come to the conclusion that Perry Wallace is an admirable person who overcame tremendous obstacles to succeed in life, and I’m certainly no exception. But as you said, it’s important not to veer into hagiography. I did that by interviewing dozens of other people, by reading as much as I could about the times, finding contemporary documents and articles, and focusing not just on Wallace’s life but also the other key events and people that surrounded him, providing additional layers of context to the story.
My opinion is that when you take the time in the reporting phase to gather the little details that allow you to make people feel like they are immersed in the moment, it helps you avoid the trap of relying on easy generalizations or hollow praise, both of which are just lazy ways of attempting to cover up a lack of research.
This is going to be a blunt question, but it probably should be said. You are clearly and passionately compelled to be the chronicler of Perry Wallace’s story, yet as a white person, were you concerned about taking on the project? Did you feel that some might believe you would not be able to fully capture the experience and atmosphere of those times? Beyond that, how were you able to push through any doubts to say, “Yes, I am the one who is meant to tell this story”?
I never had those kinds of doubts, mainly, I think, because of the confidence I gained in writing about Perry when I was just a teenager. Perry is a teacher at heart, and I got the impression from him then that he believed I was genuinely interested in learning all I could about his experience and telling his story honestly. So he helped me gain a deeper and deeper understanding of his life and his perspective on the world. Not to mention that I was a history major at Vanderbilt and was attending the school on a sportswriting scholarship, of all things.
So in some ways, even when I was just a sophomore in college, I felt like writing about Perry Wallace was the most appropriate and natural thing for me to be doing in the world. Then, in addition to dealing with Perry specifically, I grew up in a family that talked about race quite a bit. I’d be watching a baseball game with my dad and he’d say he was rooting against the Red Sox because they were the last team to integrate; that kind of thing. This book brings together all of my passions. There is no other story I am more meant to write than this one. I hope that comes through the pages when people read it.
We are in a very difficult time in America’s understanding of race relations. Tensions have started to ease in Ferguson, MO but the Grand Jury is set to present its conclusion on the killing of Michael Brown in October. There is belief that things will flare up again. There was the killing of Trayvon Martin before that. While researching, writing and now promoting this book, a book that is in part a victory story, what was your feeling when deeply researching the plight of African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s, then to read these parallels in modern news reports, and the open wounds of race and how one person still responds to another?
Perry Wallace’s story is indeed ultimately a victory story, but not in any simplistic or typical way. In fact, if you ask him if he’d do it all over again, he’d probably say ‘no.’ Only he knows just how much mental and physical strength it took to endure all that he did and still go on to live a healthy and productive life. And all of the hardships he endured revolve around race. Here’s a person who was the valedictorian of his high school class, had a double engineering major at Vanderbilt, listened to classical music as a kid, almost played the trumpet instead of basketball in high school, treated his girlfriends with respect, taught Sunday School, loved his mother, earned a law degree at Columbia, was a trial attorney for the Justice Department and is now a college professor – and yet this model citizen who does all the right things has had to work insanely hard to overcome innumerable obstacles and slights, big and small, just to have a happy life in America. Because he’s black. So, yes, it was discouraging to see that many of the same issues Perry was dealing with in the 1960s were reappearing 50 years later, but not surprising.
At the same time, are you hoping that this story starts conversations about race, not just in sports but in society? If the statement is that we certainly have not come far enough after all this time, are you hoping this is the spark that causes people to ask, “Why is that?” Or, conversely, is that the job of another story about that subject, not this subject?
Yes, absolutely I hope Strong Inside is a springboard for conversations about race. For one thing, I think this book is “accessible” even to readers who might not be comfortable diving into the subject of race relations. One might pick it up because they love biographies or basketball or learning about people who overcame obstacles. And along the way, they’ll gain a perspective on race in America that they might not have considered before.
Perry is incredibly honest about every aspect of his experience, including the fact that he did not always receive wholehearted support even from the black community. There were some neighbors and classmates who considered him a sell-out for even attending Vanderbilt, an Uncle Tom. Many of his black classmates at Vanderbilt, not athletes but just regular students, said they felt like they were constantly engaged in a tug-of-war between two communities: they took abuse from white classmates because of the color of their skin, and then some black contemporaries would criticize them for trying to ‘act white’ by going to Vanderbilt. So the book raises all kinds of interesting questions that I hope will help everyone understand each other a little better, and maybe become more sensitive to how difficult it was for these pioneers.
We need to address the Lew Alcindor Rule. For anyone who was born ten years ago, Lew Alcindor is the birth-name of the legendary Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and the NCAA “rule” is about the signature slam-dunk move. Only, it isn’t…
It’s hard to imagine now, but yes, there was a time when the dunk was outlawed in college basketball. It was dubbed the “Lew Alcindor Rule” at the time because Alcindor had attracted so much attention as a star player – and prolific dunker – at UCLA. In his autobiography, Alcindor (by then Kareem Abdul Jabbar) wrote about how glaringly obvious it was that the rules change was an attempt to limit the rising influence of black players who were changing the game to the “above the rim” style we know today.
What most people don’t realize is that Perry Wallace probably had quite a bit to do with the rule change himself. As a kid, Wallace had learned to dunk from none other than David Lattin, the ferocious dunker who was a star on the Texas Western team that upset Kentucky in the famous “Glory Road” national championship game. The year after that landmark game, in which the all-black Miners beat the all-white Wildcats, Wallace arrived on the scene in the SEC. In a freshman game in Lexington, he dunked over Kentucky’s star freshman Dan Issel, and Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp went ballistic on the sidelines.
So as Wallace told me, his dunk must have been an “exclamation point on a terrible sentence” in Rupp’s mind. Rupp didn’t have to play Alcindor, but he did have to play Vanderbilt twice a year. He was as influential as anyone in college basketball, and by the next season, the dunk was outlawed. I write in the book that it was a way to negate “black power” with the stroke of a pen.
The book is coming out this November via Vanderbilt University Press. This is a serious lead-up to release, especially with subject matter that you have been working with so long. Put me in the mindset of the first-time author who is at one point ready to move on and launch to the world, and at another point so steeped in the subject matter you might not be prepared to let it go.
As a first-time author, every stage of this eight-year process has been a learning experience. At first the question I wrestled with was whether I could find enough material to justify a book. That didn’t take long to put to rest. Then the question was whether I could write something longer than a magazine article, which I had never done before.
Then there was finding a publisher (Vanderbilt University Press), finding great photography, coming up with a title, checking facts, the whole copy-editing process, etc. Now I’m at the stage where something that had only existed in my head or on my computer at home is about to enter the world as a story for people to read and react to. Several authors that I’ve spoken with have told me that seeing a book to completion is the closest thing to childbirth that a man can experience – including the possibility of some post-partum depression after the book has run its course. I’m already starting to feel some of that even before the book has come out – this is a story that’s been on my mind for eight years and now it’s about to enter this stage where it leaves me and is going to have to make its way in the world!
But more than anything, this is an exciting time. I believe people will be amazed by Perry Wallace’s story once they hear it, so I’m motivated to exceed expectations on what’s possible for this book. First-time author with a small publisher and a relatively unknown subject is not the typical recipe for a best-seller, but I love the underdog role.
Andrew Maraniss’ Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South will be released in November. To learn more about the book and Maraniss, visit: http://andrewmaraniss.com/
Amazon is offering a pre-order of the book which you can access by clicking here.