President Obama’s schedule today informs us he will be meeting with the 1963 college basketball champions, the Loyola University Chicago Ramblers.
He will be honoring the team for breaking down racial barriers in college basketball. The Ramblers defied an unwritten NCAA rule at the time that coaches and teams should put no more than three black players on the court. George Ireland, the Loyola coach, thought he should place the best five, even if all five were black. The Ramblers played Mississippi State in that championship game, and the Mississippi State Bulldogs–an all white team–lost.
It’s fine that the President is honoring those black players from the ’63 Ramblers.
But if he glanced at the New York Times today he might have noticed an obituary of a certain Leland Mitchell, who died at age 72.
He might want to mention Mitchell’s name too.
That’s because the Ramblers would never have been able to beat Mississippi State had it not been for Leland Mitchell.
Mitchell played on that Mississippi State team. He and his white teammates had been ordered by a court to not play the game. Segregation was the law of the land in Mississippi. The legislature, the governor and a court ordered the white players to refuse to play with blacks.
Native Mississippian Leland Mitchell, according to the NYT obituary, said “Who else has a car?” He and his white teammates wanted to play and defied the law of their state that it was illegal for white players from a state school to play black players.
The coach sneaked out of the state and got himself to Nashville. Mitchell later said, “It was real cloak and dagger stuff.” The white players also smuggled themselves out of segregation land, joined the coach in Nashville, boarded a charter and flew to the championship game.
They lost, and the winners, the Ramblers, will be honored today for breaking the race barriers of America’s segregation era.
But there would not have been a game had the white Mississippi players had not broken race barriers first, had they not defied the law, fled the state, and taken the court against black players.
Leland Mitchell died yesterday. I hope Obama notes his passing and his role in breaking down racial barriers.