Black in Blue
Wednesday, January 23 at 7:30 p.m.
Georgia Tech’s Global Learning Center, Room 236
A panel will follow the screening and feature:
Paul Wagner, the filmmaker
Paul Karem, former University of Kentucky quarterback
Wilbur Hackett, former University of Kentucky football team captain
Mel Page, brother of Greg Page, the first African-American signed to play football at Kentucky and in the SEC
Homer C. Rice, former Georgia Tech athletic director and former Kentucky assistant football coach
- This screening of Black in Blue and post film panel is free and open to the public, however seating is limited.
- Parking: Pay parking is available in the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center garage, which is adjacent to the Global Learning Center.
- For more information about this event contact, Dr. Mary McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trailer: Black In Blue
Black In Blue: Tracing the Origins of Desegregation in College Football to Georgia Tech and Kentucky
By Johnny Smith ( J.C. “Bud” Shaw Professor of Sports, Society, and Technology, and Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Tech)
During the 1960s, the civil rights movement completely transformed the racial landscape of American sports. While northern college football teams had featured African American athletes for decades, the process of integration moved gradually. Many of the first black pioneers in northern institutions experienced a form of “segregated integration,” where they were accepted in some spaces on campus and denied access to others. More often than not, integration was driven less by progressive principles than by the desire to win games.
In the south, white supremacists fully resisted the desegregation of its institutions, especially colleges and universities, and their athletic programs. In 1955, a year after the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, Georgia governor Marvin Griffin publicly opposed Georgia Tech’s participation in the Sugar Bowl against an integrated University of Pittsburgh team. For embattled segregationists like Griffin, maintaining racial purity in sports was crucial in the larger fight to defend the entire Jim Crow system. Throughout the South, state legislators and political leaders organized a sweeping campaign of “massive resistance” against federally mandated desegregation.
Confronted with the possibility that white men would compete on the football field with a lone black player, Governor Griffin declared, “The South stands at Armageddon. The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle. There is no more difference in compromising the integrity of race on the playing field than in doing so in the classroom. One break in the dike and the relentless seas will rush in and destroy us.”
For white southerners, the desegregation of college football threatened the sanctity of a way of life under attack. In the minds of militant segregationists, accepting interracial athletic competitions meant submitting to the beginning of the end of the South’s racial order. Several southern cities and towns passed legislation prohibiting interracial athletics. The white backlash against integrated sports continued on campuses in the Deep South for more than a decade. But by the late 1960s, civil rights activists, black students, and black sportswriters pressured southern universities to desegregate, protesting the football programs that remained visible symbols of white supremacy.
This racial revolution in southern college football began in the border states—first in the Atlantic Coast Conference, beginning with the University of Maryland in 1963; next in the Southwest Conference, beginning with Southern Methodist and Baylor in 1966; and finally in the Southeastern Conference, beginning with Kentucky in 1967.
That season, two black players at the University of Kentucky, defensive end Greg Page and receiver Nate Northington broke the color line in SEC varsity football. When they first arrived in Lexington as freshmen in the fall of 1966, Northington recognized the enormous burden that he and his roommate carried as pioneers, symbols of black advancement in the minds of some, a threat to white supremacy to others. “Integrating the athletic programs in the SEC,” he thought to himself, “would remove one of the last vestiges of segregation in the South and move the country forward.”
On the eve of the 1967 season, however, during a sweltering August practice, tragedy struck Northington’s best friend during a routine pursuit drill. Playing defense in helmets, shoulder pads, and shorts, Page and ten other Wildcats lined up against a skeleton offense, waiting for a coach to throw the ball to a receiver. The coaches instructed all eleven Kentucky defenders to pursue and hit the ballcarrier. Only this time when Page collided with another player he collapsed and never rose to his feet. His spinal cord severed, Page laid paralyzed from the nose down. After thirty-eight agonizing days in the hospital, he died.
Shattered, Northington could hardly put together the pieces of his life. Losing Page pained him. Suffering in silence, after playing five games he packed his bags. “I had had enough,” he said, “and I couldn’t take any more.”
So many questions remain about Northington, Page, and the legacy of the first black football players in the SEC. Why did Greg Page and Nate Northington attend the University of Kentucky? What happened to Northington after he left Lexington? How did they change the culture of southern college football? What role did Dr. Homer Rice, former assistant coach at Kentucky, and later the athletic director at Georgia Tech, play in the desegregation of SEC football?
The answers to these questions and more can be found in a compelling new documentary directed by Paul Wagner. In Black and Blue, Wagner captures the remarkable story of Page, Northington, and Rice, three courageous men determined to erase the color line. It’s a story you don’t want to miss.