A League of Fans Special Feature
Andrew Maraniss is the author of Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.
In addition to his work as an author, Maraniss is a partner at McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations. He is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered, a biography of Vince Lombardi.
A graduate of Vanderbilit University, Maraniss worked for five years as the associate director of media relations for Vanderbilt’s athletic department. During the 1998 Major League Baseball season, Maraniss was the media relations manager for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Strong Inside is the story of Perry Wallace, who was the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Confernce. It’s part sports book and part sociological case study. Through Maraniss’ outstanding research and writing skills, the reader feels emotionally inserted into the middle of the country’s civil rights movement of the late 1960’s. After reading Strong Inside, one can fully appreciate the mental, physical and emotional toll that comes with being a civil rights pioneer.
Strong Inside is an insightful and entertaining read. Plus, it has the pace of a page-turning novel and is a class above the standard sports biography.
League of Fans has identified equal opportunity in sports as one of the ten most important sports issues in the United States today. On that note, Strong Inside represents a great resource for today’s sports activists who are working on equal opportunity issues in SportsWorld, whether those issues are race-based, gender-based, sexual orientation-based, age-based, or economics-based.
Maraniss was interviewed by Ken Reed, League of Fans’ Sports Policy Director.
Ken Reed: What are some similarities and differences between Perry Wallace’s story and Jackie Robinson’s story?
Andrew Maraniss: One similarity was that neither Perry Wallace nor Jackie Robinson were the very best players – purely in terms of their athletic skills — who could have potentially broken the color lines in their sports, but they were great players who were the best suited to handle the challenges of pioneering. They both faced enormous pressures from all sides, from those who pinned their own hopes and dreams to their careers and wanted them to succeed, and of course, pressure from so many people who wanted them to fail.
I believe Perry Wallace’s experience was just as tough – or even tougher — than Jackie Robinson’s. When you think about the time and place in which Wallace operated – the Deep South of the tumultuous 1960s – it was a very dangerous time to be a solitary pioneer.
College athletics were one of the last institutions to be desegregated in the South. Wallace told me that he approached road trips with “the deepest sense of dread,” and was concerned he might be shot and killed either on the basketball court or around town before a game. And on top of that, he wasn’t just an athlete – he was studying engineering at one of the best universities in the country, trying to earn a degree and play ball while he feared for his life on the basketball court. And his mother was dying of cancer. He was under an enormous amount of pressure.
KR: The civil rights movement was really starting to crank up during Wallace’s formative years. Was telling Wallace’s story in the larger context of the civil rights movement a primary reason you decided to write this book?
AM: The primary reason was to tell the story of a fascinating person who made a tremendous mark on the course of American culture and sports, and yet who remains a person most people have never heard of. And, yes, I felt that the story could best be told – and should only be told – in the context of the larger civil rights movement.
Perry Wallace’s life tracks so neatly with so many key moments and figures in civil rights. He started kindergarten in 1954, the year of Brown v Board of Education. As a 12-year-old in 1960, he would sneak downtown to watch the sit-ins at the Nashville lunch counters. He entered high school a week after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and was in high school for the passage of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts. In college, he met key civil rights figures such as King, Stokely Carmichael, Fannie Lou Hamer and Robert F. Kennedy.
I loved placing his pioneering story in the context of what was happening in Nashville, in the South, and around the country in terms of civil rights. And it’s a legitimate connection. Perry Wallace was a civil rights pioneer as much as a sports one, and I wrote the book to appeal to non-sports fans as well as sports fans.
KR: In reading your book, two quotes came to mind. One, is Nietzsche’s “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” and the other is Rosa Park’s “You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it’s right.” Do you think those quotes apply to Wallace’s life in general, and his time at Vanderbilt in particular?
AM: Yes, I think both of those quotes apply to Perry Wallace’s life, although I would caution against a temptation to believe that just because his mission was noble, that it was somehow made easier by that nobility.
Perry Wallace was a regular person, just a teenager, thrust into the position of trying to right a wrong that adults hadn’t figured out for centuries. He encountered tremendous resistance, saw the worst of human nature in many instances, and I don’t know that he would choose to do it all over again if he had the chance.
There were situations that were scary, even though he knew what he was doing was right. But the determination those quotes allude to was certainly there: Perry Wallace clearly understood he had undertaken an important mission that meant a whole lot to many people and that would move society in the right direction. He understood what it meant to be a pioneer, and he would not quit.
KR: Given that most human beings naturally prefer to not “rock the boat” or fight the status quo, how do you think Perry Wallace summoned the courage and strength to stand up for what he believed in and endure what he had to go through?
AM: It’s a great question, because Perry Wallace did not necessarily want to be a pioneer, to shoulder so much responsibility. He was not born a hero. He reluctantly accepted the challenge of becoming the first African American basketball player in the SEC in spite of the fact that he’d be making history, not because of it. And yet, in many ways he was just the right man for the job.
He came from a tremendously strong home. He was very close to his mother and father, and his four older sisters were not only fantastic role models (they all went to college), they were very protective of their little brother. Faith was very important in the Wallace home; Perry’s mother told him to “put on the full armor of God” to protect him in the toughest circumstances.
He was also a great student of history. He read about Jackie Robinson and other pioneers, and would ask himself, ‘What’s the proper pioneer response in this situation?’ The answer was usually some form of ‘You cannot quit’ – it was important to Perry to finish the journey he had started, to not let his detractors derail his mission. The title of the book refers to both his strength as a basketball player and his inner strength as a person.
KR: I think the country is crying out for a national discussion on the issue of race. Your book is a great addition to the marketplace of ideas on this subject. Do you think sports can be a leader in spurring such a national discussion?
AM: I agree that there is a tremendous need for such a discussion, and it’s gratifying to think that Strong Inside could play a role. I have seen some of this happening in the reaction I’ve received from some people who have read the book. It allows people to see the world through Perry Wallace’s eyes, to step into his shoes and experience what it was like to be a brilliant, athletic, sensitive, conscientious, polite, spiritual person who was the recipient of the worst of human nature simply because he was black. That’s been shocking for some people to read. Many of his white contemporaries have expressed a certain amount of regret that they were not aware of what he was going through, or that they didn’t do more to provide some measure of support.
When I speak to student groups today, I tell them that’s one of the lessons of the book – to get involved with people outside their own cliques or comfort zones, to look for the people who may be considered to be ‘on the fringe’ but who actually represent a truth that is not being heard. Reach out to those people now, build bridges, so that they’re not in the same position decades from now, wishing they had done more.
I agree that in general, sports can continue to be a leader in a national discussion on race. In an increasingly polarized society, and one where we can hyper-personalize the news we consume, sports remains one of the few things we collectively experience. So leagues, teams, coaches and athletes have a rare platform to influence public discussion.
KR: What are the lessons of Perry Wallace’s life for those of us fighting for social justice in sports today, whether that’s equal opportunity for minority, female and LGBT athletes, fair treatment of minority candidates for coaching and administrative positions, or economic justice for big-time college athletes?
AM: One of the key lessons is the importance of leadership; those in positions of leadership making the right choices to move institutions, organizations, and society along rather than shying away from tough or big decisions.
There are other lessons to take away from Perry’s journey, things like persistence, patience, looking and acting several steps ahead of those around you to ensure a pioneering journey is not derailed, being prepared to take advantage of opportunities when they are presented, and the notion that diversity expands a talent pool.
I find it fascinating to examine the words and deeds of those who resisted change, who were certain that they were in the right, who were considered to be in the right by the culture at large, and who were so squarely in the wrong. History has clearly made that judgment. There are obvious parallels today.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
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Ken Reed’s Author Page on Amazon