Just about every American knows about the courageous fight Jackie Robinson waged in integrating major league baseball. Robinson, who was the first African-American player to “break the color barrier” in American professional sports, is said by many to have done at least as much to overcome racism in America as Martin Luther King, Jr. did two decades later.
But as late as 1965, almost two decades after Robinson integrated baseball, the South was still segregated in college basketball and still very much in the grip of Jim Crow attitudes. It was then that another pioneer, a young man named Wallace Perry, became the first black player to integrate the Southeastern Conference when he played as a sophomore center for the Vanderbilt University Commodores’ basketball team. In “Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South,” author Andrew Maraniss recounts the battle against bigotry and hatred that an idealistic young man from Nashville, Tennessee, waged.
It’s a gripping tale, one that easily matches the more well-known struggles Robinson experienced as the first black major league baseball player. Wallace had been a star in his segregated high school, where he learned to leap and dunk, thereby establishing himself as a star (even though he only stood 6’5”, short by today’s standards for a center). He set rebounding records in high school and led his team to a state-wide championship in his senior year.
He was by then being sought by several schools in the north, including Purdue, where he was tempted to enroll. But his parents were anxious for him to stay in Nashville (primarily so they could see him play), and when Vanderbilt offered him a scholarship, naively ignoring the racism he would encounter, he accepted. He did not think of himself as a trailblazer as he entered the university. His primary motivation was the education he wanted to receive. (Wallace went on to law school after graduating from Vanderbilt, and is now a law professor at American University in DC.)
But he did become a trailblazer in his three years as a varsity player for Vanderbilt. He led his team to winning seasons despite being treated poorly by his own teammates. One compelling event told by Maraniss epitomizes his experience. After being hit hard by an opposing player in the first half of a game, Wallace had to retire to the dressing room to get first-aid. None of his teammates showed any real concern, and when he came back for the second half of the game, they essentially ignored him. Still, he led the team to victory in the game.
Like Robinson before him, Wallace was subjected to hateful receptions when Vanderbilt played at some of the SEC gyms (Mississippi and Mississippi State, especially, according to Maraniss). Racial epithets were common and death threats were not infrequent. On several occasions, he admitted to being very scared, but he continued to play, despite the less than full support he got from his teammates and coaches. (In this regard, his experiences were worse than those of Robinson, who was at least openly welcomed by Dodgers’ captain Pee Wee Reese in a famous public display during Jackie’s rookie season.)
The book is an excellent reservoir of the history of the times, showing the latent bigotry of major figures in college basketball like Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, who condescended to the arrival of black players primarily because they made his team better. It also reflects how much the South (and the country) has progressed in the fifty years since Wallace’s breakthrough years at Vanderbilt.
And, for those who are fans of the game, the book spares little in its review of the key games that Wallace played, both in high school and college. There are many passages that are devoted entirely to recounts of particular games of note, and they are written much as a newspaper reporter would write up an account of a game for a morning paper.
So, for many reasons, “Strong Inside” is a highly readable book about an important figure in the civil rights movement, one who deserves much more attention and credit than he had received before Maraniss shed light on him.