By Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service
— If your interests lean toward American history and college sports, a recently released documentary about the Civil Rights era in Alabama and the vaunted Crimson Tide football program is a must-see.
Paul Finebaum, the noted Southern author and sports commentator, had this to say about “Three Days at Foster,” a reference to the name of an auditorium on the Alabama campus.
“Simply an unforgettable film . . . (writer-director) Keith Dunnavant has taken one of the seminal moments in the Civil Rights movement and peeled off a new layer that is both haunting and gut-wrenching,” the new ESPN sports figure wrote.
There are many levels to the piece, but in the end it tells the story of the clash between Gov. George Wallace’s segregationist beliefs, ones shared by many in the Deep South, and sweeping changes affecting college football and Alabama’s love for the Crimson Tide. The passions of race and rivalries were on a collision course where there would be no easy resolution to an accepted way of life in the Heart of Dixie.
Football teams across the land had begun recruiting black athletes to their teams, but in Wallace’s state, the governor was hard at work keeping black students out of classrooms on the Tuscaloosa campus. The showdown came on June 11, 1963, when Wallace blocked two black students from enrolling for classes at Foster Auditorium until federal troops cleared a way to a registration table inside the gym.
That historical event also turned out to be a triggering moment for the integration of the University of Alabama sports programs and furthered a change in the land’s social, political and cultural fabric that to this day is both amazing as well as revolutionary.
Much of Dunnavant’s work deals with legendary Alabama coach Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and the earliest black players, many of whom were mere footnotes in history, and how they came to join the once all-white team. They weren’t the famous All-Americans that would wear the crimson jersey in years to come, but guys who liked the game and didn’t see why the color of their skin should disqualify them. There was Dock Rone and Andrew Pernell and Arthur Dunning -- maybe not huge physical specimens by today’s standards, but gritty athletes who could play.
They weren’t scholarship guys, just walk-ons who weren’t afraid of walking into a previously all-white locker room. Talk about courage. None ever made it into a regular season game, although two did play in a spring scrimmage – a point some may see as trivial, but an achievement that truly wasn’t.
Their efforts – and perhaps awareness by Bryant that Alabama’s competitiveness on the national stage was threatened – led to changes. The introduction of black players to the team proved at least two things: They could play and they could be teammates.
Getting fans across the state to accept it, however, would be another obstacle. But as former Alabama sports information director Kirk McNair said, “Those old rednecks wouldn’t challenge Coach Bryant.” When it came to powerbases in Alabama, there was Bryant and there was Wallace, and the governor knew not to tangle with the Bear.
Actually, it was basketball coach C.M. Newton who signed Wendell Hudson in 1969 to an athletic scholarship, the school’s first to an African-American. Recruiting a black player had Bryant’s blessing. Later that year, assistant coach Pat Dye convinced Wilbur Jackson, a running back from Birmingham, that Alabama was right for him and he was right for Alabama. Assuring Jackson’s parents was a tougher assignment, but Dye proved persuasive. The Tide had turned.
The informative and captivating documentary features dozens of interviews with coaches, players, sports writers and even a cheerleader, each adding valuable insight and detail. The name – “Three Days at Foster” – refers to separate events: The Wallace-staged blockade, a gripping story about a black high school basketball player from Huntsville who leads his team to a state championship in a hostile environment, and a late-in-life moment where Jackson returns to campus with his daughter.
The documentary lasts about 80 minutes and can be rented online for $4.95, through an Internet film service called Vimeo on Demand.
It’s a championship effort by Dunnavant, who allows “Three Days at Foster” to expose dark times in Tuscaloosa that ultimately give way to a brighter day, not only for a team but a state.
Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.