Commentary

Dean Smith and a civil rights legacy

The legendary basketball coach worked to integrate his teams even back in high school

Originally Published: May 17, 2011
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

This Tuesday marks the 57th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that led to the desegregation of America's schools. While many remember the decision, not so many recall that the board of education in that case oversaw the schools of Topeka. Below the high school level across Kansas -- as well as at many levels all across America -- schools were still segregated before 1954.

In the late 1940s, there was a young player who would become one of the greatest names in the history of basketball at Topeka High School, which had been integrated from the time it was founded in 1871 but was fielding an all-white team known as the Trojans, the school's mascot. (More on him later.) The other teams at Topeka High were integrated, but not basketball.

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Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call/Getty ImagesA sample of the coverage of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, on display at the Library of Congress.

At the same time, there was also an all-black team, the Ramblers, made up of students from the school. And events or social occasions that would bring the white and black students together were not allowed. African-American students could not use the school's swimming pool and had to attend separate school dances.

Topeka High did not fully claim the Ramblers. The Trojans clearly were the school's team; the Ramblers couldn't even use the school's gym to practice. They played their games and held their practices at East Topeka Junior High. They had their own all-black cheerleading squad.

Unlike some Kansas high schools in similar situations, however, Topeka High did help the Ramblers to some degree. It provided them with uniforms and with buses for away games, as they played in an all-black conference against teams from Kansas and western Missouri. Wherever they played, the Ramblers faced segregation. Meals on the road were served by the families of the opposing teams in gyms or churches. On overnight road trips, the players stayed in the homes of local African-American families.

In 1948, the Trojans placed third in the state tournament. The next year, a member of the Trojans -- the aforementioned young player -- went to Buck Weaver, the principal, to try to get the two teams merged; and he would not give up after initially being rebuffed. He wanted to win a championship by fielding the best players possible.

That player was Dean Smith -- the same Dean Smith who helped integrate ACC basketball by recruiting Charlie Scott to play at the University of North Carolina in 1966.

Weaver's hesitation was because he thought it would smash the special segregation of social life between whites and blacks, especially at the dances that were often held after the Trojans' basketball games. Topeka's football, track and baseball teams, as we've mentioned, already were integrated. But there were no dances after those games.

With Smith in the middle, the pressure on Weaver grew; and after the 1948-49 season, Topeka High School's basketball team was integrated. The next season, there were three African-Americans on the Trojans' junior varsity squad; and in the 1951 season, Bill Petersen became the first-ever African-American varsity basketball player at Topeka.

By then, Smith was a star at the University of Kansas.

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AP Photo/Pete LeaboIn 1982, Dean Smith cut the net as he and the Tar Heels celebrated their NCAA championship win over Georgetown.

Some of the alumni from the old Ramblers teams later played significant roles in the city of Topeka and around the country. Joe Douglas became Topeka's first African-American fire chief. Jack Alexander became the city's water commissioner. Coach Merle Ross became an administrator for Topeka's elementary schools. Ira Hutchinson became the first African-American to serve as deputy director of the National Park Service.

None, though, had greater impact than Oliver Brown and Charles Scott did with their roles in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which literally changed the course of America's racial and civil rights history. Scott was one of the counsels for the NAACP, which brought the suit. (There is some irony here in that the player Smith chose to help integrate ACC basketball had the same name.) Brown was the plaintiff named in the suit representing 13 parents and their 20 children. He is the Brown in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. A former Rambler!

When Smith came for his induction into the National Consortium for Academics and Sports (NCAS) Hall of Fame, we talked at length about the impact our fathers had on our subsequent involvements with civil rights issues. He knew that my dad had helped integrate the NBA by signing Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton in 1950, and he told me that his father, Alfred Smith, helped integrate sports in Emporia, Kan. As the coach at Emporia High, Alfred Smith put the first African-American player in school history on his team, in 1932. Emporia won the state championship in 1934, becoming the first integrated team to win the state title.

Dean Smith and I were both raised in homes where African-Americans were often guests. In the 1930s, '40s and early '50s, this was not the norm in America. But it was normal in our homes.

Dean Smith's record as a player and as a coach is now, of course, part of the history of basketball in America. His Kansas team, coached by Hall of Famer "Phog" Allen, won the national championship in 1952. He coached North Carolina from 1961 through 1997, winning two national titles and reaching 11 Final Fours; and he coached a gold-medal winning Olympic team at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. He retired with 879 wins, then the most ever for a college coach.

He was in the first group we inducted into the NCAS Hall of Fame in 1998. Eddie Robinson, then the winningest college football coach in history after 57 years at Grambling State, joined him. Remarkably, it was the first time the two giants had ever met.

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AP Photo/Orlin WagnerThe former Monroe School in Topeka is now the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.

America was never the same after the Brown decision, but the young Dean Smith's civil rights advocacy did not end in Topeka. I've already mentioned that he signed Charlie Scott to play at UNC, and he played a major role in the dismantling of segregation in general across North Carolina. He helped integrate a local restaurant and assisted an African-American graduate student's purchase of a home in an all-white neighborhood. In a profession in which many coaches are either conservative or not political at all, Dean Smith opposed the Vietnam War, the death penalty and called for a freeze on nuclear weapons, among other causes.

I wrote about Smith and Scott for ESPN.com several years ago. In that column, I noted that Smith had called me about Charlie Scott nearly 25 years after he enrolled at UNC, when Smith read that the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, which I founded at Northeastern University, had started a program that was using former athletes to train young people to deal more effectively with racial tensions and conflict. It was named Project Teamwork. Lou Harris, the famed public opinion analyst, evaluated the program and called it, "America's most successful violence prevention program."

Smith thought Scott would be a perfect leader for Project Teamwork. Amazingly, the coach made the call during the week that UNC was about to play in the Sweet 16 in 1990. What coach calls someone during that week about a player who had left his program decades earlier? As it happened, we had already filled the position on Project Teamwork, and Scott was happy with his career as a marketing director for Champion.

So on this anniversary, it's worth remembering that five years before the Supreme Court decision that would forever change America, in the city where the decision was filed, Dean Smith was standing up for justice to integrate the Topeka High School basketball team. After that start, Smith knew what he could do on and off the court. Perhaps no one has ever done it better.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport. Research for this article was done by Devan Dignan, a graduate of the DeVos program.

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Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com