'The South Stands at Armageddon': Breaking the Sugar Bowl color barrier

Bobby Grier's appearance in the 1956 Sugar Bowl set off a firestorm in the Deep South. Courtesy University of Pittsburgh

In the second week of November 1955, Fred Digby, the Sugar Bowl founder and general manager, and Monk Simons, a former Tulane football star, left New Orleans en route to Pittsburgh. They wanted to go to Pitt Stadium, where they would watch the 48th game between Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the rivalry known as "The Backyard Brawl."

Digby, 62, was a retired sportswriter. Simons, 41, had coached three different sports at his alma mater. They were prominent men in New Orleans, which, given that it was the '50s and New Orleans is in the Deep South, meant they were white.

Digby and Simons went to Pittsburgh on a scouting trip. They intended to invite West Virginia to play in the Sugar Bowl. The Mountaineers, ranked sixth in the nation, would be a shiny prize for the postseason game. West Virginia would find no pushover in Pitt, ranked 17th, especially because the Brawl was known as one of the most intense rivalries in the East. But eight of nine writers in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette picked West Virginia to win.

What Digby and Simons saw that day caused them to fall in love -- with the Pitt Panthers, who defeated West Virginia, 26-7. One week later, at the end of the season, the Sugar Bowl invited the No. 11 Panthers, 7-3, to play in the 1956 Sugar Bowl, where they would face No. 7 Georgia Tech.

What Digby and Simons did not see that day was the performance of a Pitt football player by the name of Bobby Grier. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound back had injured a knee and did not play in the Brawl. Whether Grier played or not, to Digby and Simons and men like them in 1955, Grier's most defining feature as a college football player was the color of his skin -- he was black.

The invitation of an integrated Pitt football team to the Sugar Bowl did not arrive as the most welcome news in segregated New Orleans. But it would become of greater importance in Georgia, where it ignited a conflict that pitted a governor against a state university, its coach and its football team -- a conflict that would end in one of the defining moments in college football's rich history: the breaking of the color line in the Deep South.

"After the last game, the Penn State game, (the spotlight) started shining on me because I was the only black player on the team," Grier said.

But he had been the only black player at Pitt all season. What changed?

"I guess because of Georgia Tech," Grier said.

Grier broke that line in the Sugar Bowl at Tulane Stadium, in the dorms at Tulane and in the St. Charles Hotel -- then a New Orleans institution. Grier, by his presence alone, provoked a politician to attempt to score some short-term points with his constituents. Instead, that politician created a legacy of hate for which he remains best known today, nearly four decades after his death.

That politician was the new governor of Georgia, a small-town newspaper publisher named Marvin Griffin. This was Marvin Griffin: In response to the federal government intervening on behalf of its black citizens, Griffin said, "No matter how much the Supreme Court seeks to sugarcoat its bitter pill of tyranny, the people of Georgia and the South will not swallow it."

The fall of 1955 hummed with the tension of the nascent civil rights movement. The irresistible force of integration, backed by the federal government and the Brown v. Board of Education decision a year earlier, had begun to collide with the immovable object of Southern segregation.

Coming soon: A version of this story will be told in Down and Distance, the podcast series that will be part of ESPN's College Football 150 initiative, later this year.

At that time, Emmett Till was not a national martyr but a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who, weeks before the college football season began, had been lynched while visiting family in Mississippi. Rosa Parks had not become a national saint lionized by presidents. She was a seamstress and civil rights organizer who, days after the season ended, was arrested for sitting in the wrong row of a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus.

By the end of the 1955 season, the issue of civil rights would seize college football, too. It should be pointed out that college football was not lily-white in 1955. The Big Ten Conference had 63 African-American players. Four black players made one of the prominent All-American teams; five started in that season's Rose Bowl. None of them played for a southern school. Southern college football, like the South in many walks of life, lived by different rules.

The Sugar Bowl had been segregated since its inception in 1935, just like New Orleans, just like the rest of the South. Forget playing in the game. African-American fans could not sit with white fans in Tulane Stadium, the original home of the Sugar Bowl. In the early '50s, admission tickets for whites-only sections of Tulane Stadium had been printed with a warning: "(T)his ticket is issued for a person of the Caucasian Race, and if used by any other is in violation of State Law."

But in 1955, the Sugar Bowl had to print different language on the back of its tickets. With the decision to invite an integrated team, the Sugar Bowl morphed from football game to political football and settled somewhere between, placing Grier in the national spotlight.

Based on his career, Grier was the least likely college back to earn the national spotlight. He was a quiet kid from the football hotbed of Massillon, Ohio. He had spent four seasons struggling to get onto the field. In 1953, Grier's sophomore year, the Panthers' head coach at the time, Red Dawson, inserted Grier into the lineup in the second half of a rout against North Carolina State, and Grier rushed for 198 yards and a touchdown on only 13 carries.

But in the days of one-platoon football, that kind of offensive performance had to be weighed against a player's defensive work. Dawson didn't think Grier could play defense and let him know it.

Early the following season, Grier, playing in the defensive backfield, bit on a fake and allowed USC to score a touchdown and break the game open. Myron Cope, a young sportswriter in Pittsburgh who would become a civic legend, repeated the story that after the game, Dawson walked up to Grier and said, "I hope you're satisfied." That was pretty much it for Grier playing for Dawson.

When John Michelosen took over for Dawson in 1955, he gave Grier a fresh start and started him in the season opener. But after that game, Michelosen benched him. More than six decades later, Grier still doesn't know why he got benched. And it still eats at him.

"That's a good question," Grier said. "I don't know. I just thought the coach thought I wasn't good enough then. I was the fastest back on the team. Even at fullback, I was the fastest."

Grier spent the rest of his senior season sharing time at fullback and defensive back with Tom Jenkins. He was contributing, perhaps not as much as he wanted, but contributing. He had a knee that locked up on him; that's the injury that caused him to miss the Panthers' upset of West Virginia. Maybe his absence made the Sugar Bowl officials believe Pitt was an integrated team in name only. The Atlanta papers referred to Grier as a reserve who seldom played.

But the Sugar Bowl officials extended the invitation to Pittsburgh on Nov. 22 "without conditions." The officials understood what that meant. They knew the Pitt team included Grier. They acquiesced to Pitt's insistence that, in the 10,000 seats the university sold, blacks and whites could sit together. The officials understood that they would be inviting a black player to be a subject of Sugar Bowl hospitality. Grier would dress in the locker room. Grier would shower in the showers. He would play on the Tulane Stadium field, and after the game, he would be invited to the dinner and dance held for the two teams at the Saint Charles Hotel.

The manager of the St. Charles, a fixture in New Orleans since the 19th century, told the New York Times he didn't believe that Grier actually would attend the postgame dinner for both teams.

"If he shows up, I won't block his way," manager Mike O'Leary said of Grier. "But you know he would never come. Traditionally, the St. Charles Hotel does not allow Negroes at dinners or dances."

Grier would be the first black athlete in the Sugar Bowl, but not in a college game in New Orleans. Loyola University had played basketball against a few integrated visiting teams. Earlier that month, Loyola faced defending national champion San Francisco, which had three black starters, two of whom -- center Bill Russell and guard K.C. Jones -- would finish their careers in the Basketball Hall of Fame. USF, en route to a second consecutive NCAA championship, extended its winning streak to 30 games with a 61-43 rout.

Two days after Pitt arrived in New Orleans, in the first round of the Sugar Bowl Basketball Tournament, No. 7 Utah defeated Marquette, 89-84, despite 12 points from Marquette's Al Avant, an African-American.

The response in the South to the Sugar Bowl's invitation to Pitt remained muted, at least until the game's officials invited another team to play.

Georgia Tech played the 1955 football season as a national power and a perennial SEC contender. Coach Bobby Dodd built teams known for defense, known for making breaks where none seemed apparent, and known for winning games they shouldn't. They called that "Dodd Luck." His Yellow Jackets also were known for winning bowl games. Georgia Tech, like every team in the SEC at the time, was all-white.

Georgia Tech closed out its season that Thanksgiving weekend by dominating archrival Georgia, 21-3. Coach Dodd called it "the finest game a Tech team has ever played." The Sugar Bowl invited the Ramblin' Wreck to play Pittsburgh. Dodd polled his players, pointing out that they would be playing an integrated team. To a man, the Yellow Jackets voted to play. Georgia Tech signed the contract with the Sugar Bowl.

Dodd, also the athletic director, reached out to Griffin to see if he had any objection. The governor told Dodd that he couldn't support him publicly, but go ahead and play. He would be in New Orleans watching. Griffin might have had a soft spot for Tech. His son, Sam, was a sophomore there.

And all was quiet until the following Wednesday, Nov. 30, when the States Rights Council of Georgia sent a telegram to Dodd urging Georgia Tech not to play an integrated team. The States Rights Council had been co-founded by Griffin. Southern journalist Hodding Carter referred to a similar council in Mississippi as "the uptown Klan." It was the businessman's way of maintaining segregation.

Griffin would have been happy to keep his fingerprints off the entire issue. But after the States Rights Council asked Georgia Tech not to play, Griffin decided he did not have that political luxury. He could not remain neutral. In the Georgia of December 1955, Griffin stood with his voters.

On Friday, Dec. 2, shortly after his office contacted the Georgia Tech athletic department to request Sugar Bowl tickets, and the morning after Rosa Parks had been arrested on a Montgomery bus, Griffin issued a statement that turned a local story into a national one, a statement that would follow him to his grave.

"The South stands at Armageddon," Griffin declared. "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 integrity of race on the playing field than in doing so in the classrooms. One break in the dike and the relentless enemy will rush in and destroy us."

Griffin's reference to "the classrooms" reminded everyone within the sound of his syrupy accent that Brown v. Board, only 18 months old, was no closer to being publicly accepted in the South than it had been when the Supreme Court issued it.

For many years, when a Northern college football team played a team from the South, the Northern team would withhold its black players from the game, even when the teams played on the Northern campus. Such an accommodation was called a "gentlemen's agreement." But by the '50s, schools outside the South began to balk. Legend has it that the University of San Francisco turned down an invitation to the 1952 Orange Bowl rather than agree to leave African-American stars Ollie Matson and Burl Toler at home.

Four seasons later, as the Sugar Bowl controversy erupted in Georgia, Grier initially dismissed Griffin's attack.

"I just thought he was crazy," Grier said. "(Me) being a college player, what's he have to do with it?"

The acting chancellor at Pitt pronounced, simply, "No Grier. No game." But as the tension heightened, Grier, though gratified, didn't want his teammates to miss out on such a wonderful opportunity. He quietly hatched his own plan to step aside.

"I had made up my mind," Grier said, "that if the team wasn't going to go because of me, I would complain about my knee, you know, that I couldn't play."

It never came to that, of course. Rob Grier Jr. said that the guys in the locker room never would have allowed his father to do that.

"I remember his teammates saying that the coach had brought them all in, without Dad. They had a team vote, and they said they weren't going to go without him," Rob Jr. said of the Sugar Bowl. "And Dad felt that that was one of the proudest moments of his life."

Gov. Griffin's defiance generated a public reaction, all right, but not at all what he wanted or intended. One member of the board of regents called the statement "asinine." Blake Van Leer, the university president, threatened to resign: "Either we're going to the Sugar Bowl," he said, "or you can find yourself another damn president of Georgia Tech."

His students, one mile away from the State Capitol, lashed out in fury. They wanted to see their Yellow Jackets in the Sugar Bowl. You would think a student body of 6,500, every one of them white and 82 percent of them Southern, would be opposed to integration. Civil rights was one thing. Let's not be messin' with the football team.

Some 2,000 students gathered, protested and eventually rioted.

They hung Gov. Griffin in effigy in front of Howell Dorm on campus.

They held up signs that said, "Griffin Sits On His Brains," and "We Play Anybody."

They marched one mile downtown to the popular area of Five Points, and hung him in effigy again.

They marched to the Capitol, uprooted parking meters, broke windows and, just to make sure they made their point, hung Griffin in effigy a third time.

Then they marched to the governor's mansion, where they stayed until 3:30 a.m., when a state senator who had played football at Tech promised them that the football team would play in the Sugar Bowl.

A few nights later, hundreds of students at Georgia, Tech's hated rival, demonstrated against Griffin. Someone created a sign proclaiming, "One Time We Are For Tech."

Other reactions rained down upon Griffin from across America. A Pittsburgh columnist described Griffin's statement as "the most damaging blow to American idealism and freedom in several years."

Even Walter Reuther, one of the most powerful labor leaders and political figures of the day, chimed in, calling Griffin's attitude "un-American." And, he added, bringing the country's other bugaboo of the day into play, "You couldn't help the Communists more if you were on their payroll."

On the morning of Monday, Dec. 5, the Board of Regents met to consider what action to take. A story in the Constitution that day reported that the "Negro citizens" of Montgomery would begin to boycott the city buses to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks. A young, little-known preacher who had recently left Atlanta for Montgomery took over as the leader of the boycott. He was 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr.

The regents voted 13-1 to allow Georgia Tech to play, and from this distant vantage point, that sounds like a remarkably forward-thinking position for the board of an all-white, Southern, public institution.

But, no.

Said Mrs. W.T. Healey, a regent from Atlanta, "Nobody feels as strongly about segregation as I do. I think to do away with it would do an injustice on the Negroes as well as the white people. But I can't understand Gov. Griffin's request."

The regents praised Griffin for his "inspiring leadership in protecting the sacred institutions of our people." But they couldn't go along with Griffin's request. The contract with the Sugar Bowl had been signed, and there was no backing out. Not to mention that they wanted the Yellow Jackets to play in the Sugar Bowl. That was the substance of the matter.

Appearances were another thing. The regents, in a blatant attempt to return to the segregated side of the street, created a new policy that would take effect the next year for both Georgia and Georgia Tech. Moving forward, the two schools would not be allowed to play integrated teams, before integrated crowds, in segregated states.

It might seem odd that the regents would make a rule for the future that undercut their current stance. But it turned out to be all theater. Passing the rule returned the regents to the segregated side of the street. It softened the blow to, and provided cover for, Gov. Griffin. And as time passed, it became clear that they had no intention of enforcing the rule. Four years later, Georgia agreed to play integrated Missouri in the Orange Bowl, and no one made a peep about the Tigers' two black running backs. As soon as the 1956 Sugar Bowl receded in the rearview mirror, everyone seemed to forget about the policy.

Griffin, for his part, quickly got word to the regents, and to the Tech powers, that he would not stand in the way of the football team. It was the same stance he had all along. In fact, amid all the controversy he stirred up, the governor quietly posted bond for the six Tech students arrested in the riot, and asked the Atlanta police not to press charges.

In Pittsburgh, Coach Michelosen, who did not want his players commenting on any part of this controversy, allowed Grier to make a statement to the local writers. Grier said, "I'm glad we're going to get a chance to play the finest team in the South, Georgia Tech."

In New Orleans, as with the regents in Georgia, there was no rush to be seen as an outpost of equality in the segregated Deep South. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted two Sugar Bowl committee members about integrating their game. One expressed optimism that Grier's appearance would be the "opening wedge" to the end of segregation. Another said he didn't like it that Grier would play, but "we had to take him to get Pitt. ... some (fans) may skip the Sugar Bowl. I'm a die-hard, but I'll be there."

On the morning of Dec. 27, the Pitt Panthers took a charter plane nonstop to New Orleans. That shaved the flight time to a mere five hours, the time it takes to fly coast to coast these days.

Pitt arrived mid-afternoon and immediately went to the practice field. It didn't take long for Grier's fortunes to change. Jenkins, his jobmate at fullback/safety, injured his knee while pushing a blocking sled. Suddenly, Grier had returned to the starting lineup.

On Monday afternoon, Jan. 2, 1956, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, at long last, played the Sugar Bowl. Tulane Stadium in no way resembled a civil rights battlefield. The New York Times reported that the police had prepared special squads that would isolate any part of the 81,000-seat stadium in which a racial incident might occur. But it also noted that the feeling in New Orleans leading up to the game was that the racial controversy was "strictly a Georgia affair."

The Times also wrote that several hundred African-Americans sat among the 10,000-seat section of Pittsburgh rooters, and that several white fans sat in the end zone sections reserved for black fans. Nowhere in the stadium were there any reported racial incidents.

On Georgia Tech's second possession of the game, quarterback Wade Mitchell threw a pass from Pitt's 32-yard-line to teammate Don Ellis in the end zone. Grier was between Ellis and the goal line, and Grier ended up on the ground. The ball sailed over both their heads. The back judge called pass interference on Grier.

More than six decades later, the play is as clear in Grier's mind as when it happened.

"The guy was coming down (the field). And I could see it, they wanted to throw the pass. And boom! He hit me, he came right into me. And the official threw the flag, and I'm saying, 'What? I didn't hit him!'"

The crowd booed its displeasure with the call. A photo that ran in newspapers across the country the next day shows Mitchell upright in the end zone, Grier prone at his feet.

The penalty gave Georgia Tech a first down inside the Pitt 1-yard line. Two plays later, Tech scored and took a 7-0 lead. When time expired three quarters later, the score was still 7-0.

Grier led all rushers with 51 yards. But he sobbed in the locker room after the game. "It should have been called the other way," he said, referring to the pass interference. "He (Ellis) pushed me from behind. That's why I fell forward.

"I was in front of him. How could I have pushed him?"

No one, then or afterward, ever intimated that the call had been racially motivated. In those days, each team selected three officials. The back judge, Frank Lowry, had been selected by Pitt, not Georgia Tech. And Grier, as he defended himself after the game, made clear to point out that no Tech player had said or done anything regarding race.

Grier said, "They were good sportsmen, perhaps the best I've played against all season. They played hard, but clean. It was a good game. But believe me. I didn't push that man."

The surviving footage is of little help. The focus of the camera, following the flight of the ball, arrived at the end zone too late to capture the contact. The writers in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette all treated the call as a legitimate penalty. So did Furman Bisher, the most well-respected sports voice in the Atlanta Constitution.

But in an authorized history of the Sugar Bowl, the sports editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Bill Keefe, said, "I followed the ball in flight with my binoculars and was just in time to see Grier seemingly push himself off Ellis and fall."

Keefe is no longer with us, but that certainly smacks of ironic humor. No defender pushes himself off of an offensive player. He is pushed.

After being the focus of a national spotlight for a month, after losing the game on what he knew was a bad call on him, after sobbing in front of his teammates and the sportswriters, Grier had to go to the official postgame dinner at a whites-only New Orleans institution.

When Grier got off the bus, a group of Georgia Tech players were waiting for him.

"Five of them came and got me," Grier said. "They said, 'You're eating with us. So I figured they were the players from the North. And so we all, together, had a good time."

Five Georgia Tech players reached across the line of scrimmage and extended their friendship to Grier. Amid all the tension that enveloped the game, it's hard to imagine a lovelier gesture. Even if the players were from the North.

Except that they weren't. The Georgia Tech roster listed 48 players that season. All 48 came from Southern states. Grier's assumption that they were Yankees was incorrect.

That wasn't the only pleasant surprise. Of all the players from both teams at the dinner, Grier received the biggest ovation. It was as if they were glad he came. There was one group of people at the dinner who enjoyed Grier's presence more than he did: the African-American waiters who waited on him. They wore big smiles, Grier said. They congratulated him. They also said, "thank you."

After the dinner came a dance at the St. Charles, and that's where Grier decided to stop being a pioneer. His fraternity chapter at Dillard, the local black college, had offered to throw a party in his honor, and he chose to go there rather than be the only black man at a dance in New Orleans.

Grier's appearance in the Sugar Bowl quickly receded before the nation's messy, ugly integration battles to come.

It turns out that the state of Louisiana didn't take a liking to what had happened in New Orleans. Later that year, at the urging of new Gov. Earl K. Long, the younger brother of the legendary Huey Long, the state legislature passed Act 579, the Louisiana Anti-Mixing Statute of 1956, which prohibited racially mixed events. Governor Long couldn't sign the bill fast enough.

Columnist Shirley Povich in the Washington Post wrote that the Sugar Bowl would become a "sectional contest to settle some kind of Dixie championship only."

He proved to be correct. The Sugar Bowl did not have a team outside the Mason-Dixon line for eight seasons. On Jan. 6, 1964, five days after Alabama played Ole Miss in New Orleans -- an all-SEC matchup, and the Rebels' fifth Sugar Bowl in seven years -- the U.S. Supreme Court let stand without comment a district court ruling that the Louisiana law was unconstitutional.

That district court ruling read, in part: "Cities may as well face up to the facts of life: New Orleans, here and now, must adjust to the reality of having to operate desegregated public facilities. Time has run out. There is no defense left. There is no excuse left which a court, bound by respect for the Rule of Law, could now legitimize as a legal justification for a city's continued segregation of governmental facilities."

On. Jan. 1, 1965, LSU played Syracuse in the Sugar Bowl. Syracuse featured two outstanding African-American running backs, Jim Nance and Floyd Little.

When Gov. Griffin died in 1982, the Armageddon speech was in the third paragraph of his obituary, overshadowing the rest of his gubernatorial legacy.

In the mid-1980s, late in his life, Georgia Tech head coach Bobby Dodd published his autobiography. Dodd said he wanted his Yellow Jackets to play in the 1956 Sugar Bowl. He wanted to play an integrated game: "I wanted to break the racial barrier, 'cause if we're gonna play any Eastern teams, they're all gonna have blacks. A lot of coaches told me, 'If anybody can break the racial thing, y'all can. Tech's the best team to break it.' We were recognized nationally, we're in a big city."

Dodd's version of breaking the racial barrier was to play opponents with integrated rosters. When he retired in 1966, Tech was still all-white.

The disappointment of the Sugar Bowl has remained a constant in Grier's life. But as he grew older, as the public began to revisit what he had done, and what he had undone, the disappointment had to make room for pride. Grier came to understand what it had meant for him to break down a barrier to equal treatment. In the twilight of his life, that pride has continued to swell.

"I am happy that I could help move sports along and move things forward more, that we all could play together," Grier said.

When Pitt and Georgia Tech played in the Sugar Bowl, the Panthers were independent and the Yellow Jackets were in the SEC. Six decades later, they are annual rivals, members of the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Last fall, when Georgia Tech played at Pitt, the Panthers named Grier as their honorary coach.

A few weeks later, the Sugar Bowl included Grier in its second Hall of Fame class alongside such luminaries as former Florida coach Steve Spurrier, former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, Notre Dame running back Jerome Bettis and Penn State quarterback Todd Blackledge. When the class was introduced to the fans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Grier, who uses a wheelchair, insisted on walking, with the help of a cane, from the sideline onto the field.

The ovation Grier received in January wasn't limited to a ballroom in an all-white hotel. The entire Superdome cheered him.