Editor’s Note: Perry Wallace, an American University Washington College of Law professor, died on Friday at age 69. If you want to read more about his remarkable life, the Washington Post recently published an obituary. The article below, written for the AU website, was originally published in January 2015.
Some of the toughest battles against racial bigotry were fought on playing fields and basketball courts. Sports fans commit many of these anecdotes to memory: Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey grilled Jackie Robinson, testing the player's fortitude before he broke baseball's color barrier; Hank Aaron received vitriolic racist letters while he chased—and eventually surpassed—Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.
Yet Perry Wallace's story was not fully told until recently. Wallace, an American University Washington College of Law professor, is the subject of a new biography by author Andrew Maraniss. Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South details his remarkable rise to become the first African-American college basketball player in the Southeastern Conference.
Wallace's parents moved from rural Tennessee to Nashville in the late 1920s. Wallace grew up in the segregated city and attended segregated schools. "Your life was very much defined by that," he recalls in an interview. Yet with proximity to colleges and universities and a thriving black middle class, he saw opportunities in Nashville.
"It helped to lift your expectations and allow you to come into contact with people who were educated and successful," he says.
An asthmatic child who played in the All-City Band and spent hours at the library reading math and science books, Wallace wasn't the most obvious candidate for athletic stardom. But he discovered basketball, and after watching the great Wilt Chamberlain play, he wanted to dunk like him. He started his own workout regimen.
"Every night, after finishing dinner and his homework, he made his way to the living room, took a spot in front of the family's black-and-white television, turned the channel to Leave It to Beaver or The Three Stooges, and got down to business," Maraniss writes. "Who knows how many squats he did in that living room, bending at the knees over and over and over again, his eyes on Lumpy and the Beave and Curly and Moe and his sights on the prize, that rim that loomed ten feet off the ground on every backboard in town."
Blazing a Trail
During Wallace's years at Pearl High School, changes on the basketball court coincided with changes in society. Initially, Pearl only played other black teams, but a highly anticipated game was set up with the predominately white Father Ryan High School squad in 1965. Pearl would eventually win Tennessee's first-ever integrated state basketball tournament in 1966.
"All this was taking place during one of the most intense periods of the civil rights movement," Maraniss writes, including the "Bloody Sunday" attacks on demonstrators at Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
During the college recruiting process, Wallace liked Vanderbilt University. But he was hesitant to become the first African-American basketball player in the SEC. To "desegregate the SEC meant going it alone in backwater southern towns like Starkville, Mississippi, and Auburn, Alabama, a teenage black male sweeping through the South like a magnet, attracting all the scattered hatred left behind by the tumultuous events of the mid-1960s," writes Maraniss.
Wallace ultimately made college basketball history and played at Vanderbilt. As expected, it was an arduous and often lonely experience for him. Racist hate mail and threats were sent to Vanderbilt, to Wallace's parents, and to Wallace directly. In visiting arenas, fans hurled racial epithets at him. On the court, referees let plenty of flying elbows and flagrant fouls against him go uncalled.
He says he got along just fine with his white teammates. "That was more important than one might recognize. Many times people will look at stories like this and they expect everybody to be a hero and to sacrifice everything," he says now. "And that's not true. A lot of people who make vital contributions are people who are civil, very decent, and they work with you like a regular person."
Wallace also met seminal civil rights figures like Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael, and he became active on campus to seek better treatment of fellow black students. "My role as a pioneer, and especially as a pioneer in the South, meant that I had to walk a fine line in doing that. I couldn't just be out there and seen as part of the civil rights movement in that sense," he explains. "But it was hard for people to have a big problem with that because I was brought there to help change things."
Wallace earned an engineering degree from Vanderbilt. He was drafted into the NBA by the Philadelphia 76ers, but he couldn't land a roster spot. Legendary coach Jack Ramsay let him practice with the Sixers, and he started playing for a minor league team while student teaching at John Bartram High School in Philadelphia.
He subsequently worked for the National Urban League and later earned a law degree from Columbia University. Among other jobs, he worked as a trial attorney with the Justice Department. He's been in his current position at AU since 1993.
"It was sort of an untold story of a pioneer who was bigger than just basketball," Maraniss says in an interview.
It's surprising that Wallace's fascinating personal journey is just now coming to light. "He's not a boastful person. He's not someone who seeks the spotlight. He's not someone, also, who defines himself by his basketball career," Maraniss explains.
Wallace says his background rarely surfaces when talking with students. "I've been careful not to impose this stuff in places where I've worked, whether at universities or other places. The last thing I want to do is to be the guy who got put up with because he was an old jock," Wallace says.
Of course, he's anything but just a jock, given his general erudition and specific expertise in corporate and environmental law. As Maraniss mentions in the book, Wallace once gave a lecture on global warming in French.
Revival in Nashville
While finishing up his Vanderbilt basketball career, Wallace did a candid interview with a local newspaper about racism he encountered at school. Many people weren't ready to hear this, and it led to what Maraniss describes as Wallace's "painful departure" from the university and the community.
Yet since Strong Inside was published, Maraniss says, Wallace has received an incredible reception in his hometown. The book is a local bestseller. The mayor of Nashville asked to lead a Q&A with the author at a bookstore, and he attended another event with Wallace and Maraniss. One library talk was standing room only. "People waited in line for two hours afterward to come up and shake Perry's hand. There were people with tears in their eyes," Maraniss says. That residents in a southern city are grappling with a book about race shows progress, he adds.
Despite recent racial tensions in the U.S., Wallace remains an optimist. "There's a huge amount of success and we don't ever want to forget that and lose sight of that, because it's easy to be discouraged and frustrated," he says, referring to events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. "I feel like we've come a long way. In fact, I know that we've come a long way."