Fifty years ago, a college football game in Tampa helped change the course of race relations in America. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 29, 1969, a predominantly white school played an all black university in the Deep South for the first time.
The University of Tampa was a mostly white football team on an eight-game winning streak. Florida A&M, in Tallahassee, was also winning a lot, but was unranked, because its players were all African-American and they played only black teams.
Five years earlier, The Civil Rights Act had been signed by President Lyndon Johnson, outlawing discrimination and ending public segregation.
But the South didn't change right away. Segregation persisted. In 1967, race riots broke out across the nation, including in Tampa, after a white police officer shot and killed a young black man suspected of burglary. The violence became known as the Long Hot Summer. In all, nearly 160 cities were roiled by the unrest, dozens of incidents classified as major riots.
A year later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. By 1969, tensions were still high.
Yanela McLeod teaches history at Florida A&M, and is working on a documentary about the school's late football coach, Jake Gaither, who pressed the Board of Regents for years for a chance to play a white team.
“He was a civil rights activist who did not have a contentious kind of methodology, but it was more behind the scenes and nurturing and fostering humanity,” McLeod said.
Gaither died in 1994. He was near retirement in 1969.
“The one thing he wanted to do was play a white school because he wanted to show America that black people, coaches, quarterbacks, they did not fall in line with the stereotypes of inability, and intellectual deficiency in which society claimed they operated,” McLeod said.
On game day, nearly 47,000 people poured into Tampa stadium.
“The atmosphere was absolutely electric,” recalled historian Fred Hearns.
He got there early, and watched from the press box. At the time he was a 19-year-old sportswriter.
“I had to remain neutral. I couldn’t cheer. But deep down inside, I was pulling for Florida A & M University to win, because I felt it would prove to the whole world that African American football players, that a black team could defeat a white team, a predominantly white team. And that Jake Gaither, who was a legend, as a coach of the Florida A&M Rattlers, could outcoach a white coach.
That white coach was Fran Curci, who still lives in Tampa and is 81.
“I knew they had better players than we had,” Curci said.
In 1969, colleges in the north were already luring away some of the best black athletes from Florida. Before he was hired as a coach at the University of Tampa, he insisted he be able to recruit their first black football players. And he did, signing the first black player in 1968, followed by three more a year later.
“The name of the game in football is you’ve got to win. And I wanted to get all kinds, whatever athlete I could get. I don’t care if he was white, black, purple, whatever he was. I had to have athletes we could win with,” Curci said.
Inside the stadium that day, blacks sat on one side, whites on the other.
“This is really good college football,” said McLeod.
“And so you've got two good coaches, two excellent quarterbacks, Jim Del Gaizo for Tampa. And you've got Steven Scruggs for FAMU. And they get on that field. And they hash it out in a game that goes back and forth, back and forth. It's a nail biter.”
Scruggs, the quarterback for Florida A&M, describes the outcome in McLeod's documentary.
“It was a monumental game. Somebody had to lose, and thank God it was them this time.”
The score: Florida A&M 34, U-T 28.
At the end, Curci took off across the field, running toward the winning coach. The crowd held its breath.
"I ran across the field, I headed right for Jake. And both stands were just standing there saying, ‘Oh my God now what's going to happen?’ And I put my arm around Jake and I said, 'Jake you had the best team, you deserved to win.'"
Author Samuel Freedman wrote about the game in his book, Breaking The Line: The Season In Black College Football That Transformed The Sport And Changed The Course Of Civil Rights.
"And all these fears that had been whipped up about how it was going to lead to fighting and rioting did not come true at all. So it became this very important emblem of desegregating public space. In fact, this is one of the largest if not the largest mass acts of desegregation in the south," said Freedman.
A 1970 matchup between the integrated University of Southern California football team and all-white Alabama is often wrongly credited with changing the game, Freedman said.
"Because that was on national TV, because the USC and Alabama were both marquee programs, there was an assumption that that was the game that really shattered the racial barrier in college football in the south, but it wasn't."
Fifty years later, historians still marvel at how a single game in Tampa ended an era of segregation in sports, by erasing the myth that whites were superior to blacks.