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Retrospective: The 1967 Orange Blossom Classic

Black college coaches fought to end southern racism

D. Kevin McNeir | 9/26/2013, 9 a.m.
One of the most overlooked events in history that helped advance the goals of the civil rights movement was the ...
Top: Eddie Robinson, during practice in Memorial Stadium in Grambling, La., in the 1980s. Below: FAMU Head Football Coach Jake Gaither in 1969. Photo by Miami Times Illustration

One of the most overlooked events in history that helped advance the goals of the civil rights movement was the Orange Blossom Classic football game — an annual championship often referred to as the “Black Rose Bowl.” Conceived in the 1930s by J.R.E. Lee, Jr., the son of Florida A&M University’s [FAMU] then-president, the game migrated between Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa until 1947 when it settled in Miami.

In those days, the South was still very segregated and life in Miami was no exception. When the Orange Bowl stadium opened in 1937, Blacks were denied admittance, except for one roped-off section in the eastern end zone. No interracial teams were allowed on the field, Blacks were barred from participating in bowl-related events and were also denied access to resort hotels in Miami Beach. Then came the Orange Blossom Classic, when for the first time, Black fans were allowed to sit in the main stands of the stadium’s northern side — whites, ironically, on the southern side. Meanwhile, the streets of Overtown and Liberty City became filled beyond capacity with Blacks from all over the country, enjoying the sights and sounds of Black culture — from celebrity entertainers to high-stepping marching bands.

The acclaimed author Samuel G. Freedman, who spoke at FIU last week and who will return in November for the Miami Book Fair, weaves an incredible narrative of those turbulent, enigmatic times in his book, “Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and

Changed the Course of Civil Rights.”

“I have always been interested in writing about Black culture beyond the extremes, the pathologies and the negatives aspects of life,” Freedman said. “The Black colleges were an integral force in the civil rights movement — theirs is a story that must never be forgotten. My motto comes from Zora Neale Hurston who said, ‘the non-morbid Negro is the best-kept secret in America whose revelation to the public is the thing needed.’”

Two great coaches — two great schools

Freedman played host to a crowd of students, staff and professors, as well FAMU alums and locals from the Black community.

“It was a great mix and response to the book was quite positive,” he said. “There was even one woman who brought her father — a FAMU football player who played from 1948 to 1952 — and said my book brought back stories that her father once told her.”

“Breaking the Line” features two of the most outstanding Black football coaches in history: FAMU’s Jake Gaither and Grambling’s Eddie Robinson. Grambling won the game, 28-25, and was led by James Harris who became the first Black QB to regularly start for an NFL team. But as Freedman illustrates, the game represented a whole lot more.

“I started out writing a story about one of the greatest games in football because I love the sport but I soon learned that something more significant was happening then in American history,” he said. “Sports became the vehicle through which advances in civil rights were made. And that wasn’t by accident. Black colleges and universities had been a brilliant part of this country’s history long before I showed up. My job was to tell the story as accurately and vividly as possible and pass that on to the younger generations.”

More would happen in 1967 including Stokely Carmichael first using the term “Black power” to affirm pride in his race, the Supreme Court finding that the prohibition against interracial marriage was unconstitutional and the fury of racism playing out in the streets of Newark and Detroit in two separate riots.