Jeff Pearlman

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Perry Wallace

#182
The first African-American to play basketball in the Southeastern Conference looks back at his trailblazing past—and takes a deep gaze toward the Ferguson heartbreak and violence. POSTED November 26, 2014

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In the fall of 1966, a young man named Perry Wallace enrolled at Vanderbilt University.

He was black.

Now, if you’re young or naive or young and naive, this might not seem like such a big deal. Hell, turn on the TV today, watch an SEC sporting event … and there are tons of African-American faces. Athletes. Cheerleaders. Coaches. Fans.

Such was not always the case.

By signing a scholarship to play for the Commodores, Wallace became the first black man to play basketball in the (oft-racist) SEC. And while he was accepted by teammates, the road was a rough one. Wallace faced the abuse of rival fans, the excessive physicality of opponents. He always had to sleep with one eye open on the road, yet never felt entirely at home on campus.

Through it all, Wallace handled himself with remarkable control and patience, ultimately graduating in 1970 and going on to a career as a trial attorney for the United States Department of Justice. In 1992 he was appointed to the EPA’s Environmental Policy advisory council, and he now works as a professor of law at American University.

Wallace recently cooperated with author Andrew Maraniss on a fascinating new book, Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.

Perry Wallace, pioneer—welcome to the Quaz …

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JEFF PEARLMAN: So Perry, we just found out that the police officer in Ferguson won’t face trial—and the reaction has been equally heartbreaking. Looting, violence, etc. I’m wondering, having lived through and experienced the civil rights era, what you’re thinking …

PERRY WALLACE: Nothing has been surprising about Ferguson, in my view. And this includes the decision not to indict and the explosion of violence. First, for all the progress that has occurred, America still has the potential for racial violence and confusion. This is what we get for engaging in such premeditated denial, blatant arrogance and partisan bickering. Among other things, there is a failure on the part of leaders (until an explosion like this happens) to try to bring people together to promote mutual understanding. Also, looking at the Keystone-Cops-like behavior of the local police, one sees, frankly, a fairly typical police department—lacking in the proper training, skills and insights suitable for a modern America. And unsurprisingly, the governor and the prosecutor were equally ham-handed in handling matters squarely within the range of both duty and foreseeability.

Finally, one minor, although controversial, point is that more black parents, leaders and others need to have “The Talk” with more young black men. Admittedly this would be like telling the victims to be more careful—and I recognize my peril here, but this is far from blaming the victim (as often happens in cases like this and in rape and domestic violence cases). My only point here is that I want these young brothers to “choose life” over death by “managing” and “de-pressurizing” these encounters. Obviously, this will sound like some out-of-date, old Tom talking, but plenty of black men my age and older have lived long, proud (enough) lives by not “taking the bait,”  whether wittingly or unwittingly dangled before them, from policemen and others. In other words, what if Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown had been taught how—and why—Perry Wallace exercised restraint and control in the face of virulent racism and handled his sense of anger and outrage another way—such as pursuing social change constructively and developing himself as a person? The answer, I believe, is clear. Oh, and one other thing: they’d still be alive, alive with their families and friends at Thanksgiving, alive to know wives and children, alive to know grandchildren.  What a shame this all is.

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J.P.: Perry, there’s a question I’ve long wanted to ask someone with your background: You’ve seen the vileness of racism up close. You’ve heard people scream every epitaph in the book. There were thousands upon thousands of whites who were against integration, against the mixing of races—until they learned their teams could win lots of sporting events. Then, hey, it was OK. I sorta feel like this still exists today—“We love you on the court, but we sure as hell don’t want you dating our daughters.” What I want to know is, how do you reconcile this? Does it bother you? Did you have to get past it? Or am I making something out of nothing?

P.W.: What I think is happening is that progress is partial—and often precarious or shaky. Realistically, or certainly from my perspective, we’ve come a real distance when those people accept black athletes at all. These folks are simply not able to go all the way (daughters and such). My way of dealing with this is to recognize that I have one life, and it’s going on now. In my highest moments of overcoming, I find pleasure and satisfaction in a very practical way, by celebrating the progress.

J.P.: There’s a quote in “Strong Inside” that was stated about your freshman year of college. You said, “The overwhelming number of students either ignored us or were hostile.” I’m guessing, over the past five decades, you’ve run into many of these people. Do you get apologies? Acknowledgments of idiocy and hatred? Awkwardness? And can you, truly, forgive someone who 50 years ago thought of you as sub-human?

P.W.: I haven’t seen a lot of the people in question because I have lived primarily in Washington, D.C. and farther up the coast. So the opportunities for many encounters haven’t been there. Even so, there have been a very few occasions when someone has apologized. More than likely, however, they just act as if nothing had ever happened—I call it “playin’ crazy.” Of course, I don’t bother to unearth old idiocies, or remind people of what they were like—no benefit to anyone.

On forgiveness, yes, I can forgive a person who saw me as sub-human—but it works best if they have shown some contrition. Even when they don’t, I just “play crazy” and act as if there was no problem. My thinking is that I’m actually celebrating my personal victory in overcoming and preserving my humanity, and they have to reckon with themselves and higher forces.

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Perry being inducted into the Vanderbilt Athletic Hall of Fame.

J.P.: What’s your take on the usage of “nigga” (A intentionally included) by blacks and whites today? What about African-Americans who say it’s “taking ownership” of the word?

P.W.: I think the popularization of any of the various forms of the N-word just shows that there has been enough progress that the people involved have hardly any real idea, or working knowledge, of what pain, hurt and tragedy underlies the word. They have simply drawn on the fact that, historically, blacks used it in only rather private, intimate settings, and they have put it over into the public domain as fully acceptable usage. You won’t see people in my generation and older using the word—certainly not loosely and in public settings.

J.P.: You were 18 when you enrolled at Vanderbilt in 1966. You clearly knew what you were walking into; knew it was a cause larger than scoring points and getting an education. When I was 18, I just wanted a friggin’ car. Where did your courage and forthrightness come from? How did you have the strength to step into such a world, knowing it’d be anything but easy?

P.W.: I didn’t really know what I was going into. But I soon found out. When I did, I decided to stay and fight, drawing on strength from my family and faith.

J.P.: What does it feel like to be called “n—–.” I really, really mean this. I feel like most people don’t know. Don’t understand or don’t care to know. But you’re young Perry Wallace, walking … wherever. And the word comes out. What does that feel like? What goes through your mind?

P.W.: There’s always a shock, a sting in hearing it. But I’ve never let it disarm me or throw me off course—even though it really may bother me and I may have to spend some time gathering up the strength to fight.

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J.P.: Do the southern coaches who recruited black players deserve tons of credit for doing the right thing? Or were they just trying to win? And does that distinction matter?

P.W.: Obviously I can’t know the minds of these guys. But it wouldn’t surprise me if they weren’t mainly just trying to win. Remember, they don’t tend to be great moralists or social justice advocates. The distinction does matter, however, in that it shapes both the nature of the institutional change and the protection and nurturing of the black athletes (C. M. Newton is the champion of a values-oriented coach).

J.P.: I’m pretty fascinated by something. You’re from the south, you attend Vanderbilt, you experience some horrific stuff. Then you attend law school at Columbia in New York City. Was the Nashville-to-New York move like going from Mars to Pluto? What do you remember about those early days in the Big Apple? Were you overwhelmed? Overjoyed?

P.W.: Yes, it was a culture shock. But it was softened by my having spent time in New York City and having lived in Philly. Also, I grew up really wanting to live in a large urban and urbane city. So at times I was overwhelmed and stressed. But I really wanted to make it, and since I had essentially been run out of Nashville, I had no real choice but to make it.

J.P.: I wrote a book that came out 10 years ago—and from time to time I still have people come up and tell me that they enjoyed it. And, in a way, it feels like it never happened; that is was so long ago, I hardly remember writing it. Is it strange, for you, to be most known for something that happened five decades ago? Are the memories still fresh and vivid, or do you sometimes feel like you’re telling stories about stories?

P.W.: Because I’ve given literally hundreds of interviews, it doesn’t feel strange. Even so, I feel like I’m somewhere between having a fresh memory of the times and telling stories about stories—where I am on the spectrum depends on the particular memory.

Young Perry from his childhood days in Nashville

Young Perry from his childhood days in Nashville

J.P.: I was watching Black-ish the other night—really funny show. And the father is upset with his son, because he doesn’t know he’s supposed to give the head nod to other African-Americans when they walk by. The wife says to her husband, “Maybe you struggled for equal rights so our son doesn’t have to worry so much about race.” To which the husband, to laughter, says, “Noooooooo.” I’m wondering, Perry, whether life ever feels that way? Do young African-Americans fail to appreciate the struggle? And is it ever uncomfortable/disappointing to observe society and see young blacks unaware of what so many went through? Oh, and do you do the nod?

P.W.: Of course no young black can have a full sense of what the struggle was like—and it would be unreasonable to expect that they do. But in some instances, for example when they are acting tragically because they have low esteem issues related to race and status in society, it is especially sad that they are ignorant of what sacrifices were made so that they could have a positive sense of themselves and could conduct themselves that way. And yes, I do the nod–if they seem to understand and appear ready to reciprocate.

J.P.: This is a political question and relates to little, I suppose. But you worked with the National Urban League, the District of Columbia government and the Justice Department—so it’s not altogether out of left field. I’m a liberal’s liberal. Civil rights. Gay rights. Amnesty. Etc … etc. I voted for President Obama twice, and overall think he’s done some good things. But I also think, perhaps not his fault entirely, he’s done one really, really bad thing: Killed the hope for change. What I mean is—he truly convinced voters he symbolized sweeping change, independence, the power of positive and powerful thinking to overcome so much. And yet, here we are, and it all just seems sort of the same. Politics as usual, fighting, arguing, etc. I’m not disappointed in Obama so much as I’m disappointed in the system. I feel like Obama was as good as it got, and it still sucks. Curious what you think about that.

P.W.: Obama really wanted to effect real change. But he was specifically stymied and generally stymied. The general part reflects how encased and loaded down the system has become, with campaign finance, partisanship (specifically the various right wing demagogues over the past 30 years) leading the charge. The specific part refers to the amazing, white-hot hostility and blinding fear that has gripped the country—all levels—because somehow a black became president. Now, to be sure, he has made misjudgments (starting off with healthcare reform was noble, but jobs would have stood him a chance of fighting off some of the hostility and doubt), but most of the problem, I think, relates to his being stymied.

Finally, I relate a lot to Obama, as a pioneer. I understand his care, caution and balance. I understand that blacks and others on the left would come to see him as weak and indecisive. Mostly, however, I understand that his approach was the one that had the remotest chance of succeeding. The problem, I say reluctantly, is that America (a large enough segment of it) is not really ready for a black president. And while some blacks now have learned the bitter lessons of this black presidency (although only some blacks), I can’t foresee when in the future the circumstances will be right for another black to make a run for the office.

With his wife, Karen, and daughter, Gabby.

With his wife, Karen, and daughter, Gabby.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PERRY WALLACE:

• We take 25-year-old Perry Wallace, put him on the Knicks right now. What’s your stat line for the season?: Six points, seven rebounds, four assists.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes. Things slowed down in a terror-filled few minutes.

• What happens after we die?: When it’s over, it’s over. Which is why you do your best, give your best, and enjoy this bad-boy (life) while you can.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ronnie McMahan, Lucky Charms, apple cranberry oatmeal, Muriel Bowser, Gerald Ford, Eric Hosmer, Philip Bailey, dirt roads, left-handed relievers, Tel Aviv, Nirvana: Nirvana, apple cranberry oatmeal, Ronnie McMahon, dirt roads, Lucky Charms, left-handed relievers, Tel Aviv, Muriel Bowser, Gerald Ford, Eric Hosmer, Philip Bailey.

• Five all-time favorite political figures: JFK, Barbara Jordan, Parren Mitchell, Bill Clinton, Shirley Chisholm.

• One question you would ask Dana Plato were she here right now?: What support systems/groups would have saved you? (our daughter is adopted)

• I’ve lost complete faith in the impartiality of the Supreme Court. Am I completely wrong?: I think you are very right–correct. The ones on the right are just so discouragingly partisan and political. Long ago my focus as a lawyer changed from litigation for civil rights to helping secure political and economic rights.

• My dad turns 72 in a few weeks. What should I get him?: Get him some CDs of some music from his coming-of-age years and some DVDs of some great old movies. Don’t worry if he doesn’t understand at first. Sit with him and enjoy some of them to get him warmed up.

• Five reasons one should make Nashville his/her next vacation destination?: Music. Food. Culture. But let’s be honest. I grew up wanting to leave and to up North, to an urbane life. My wife grew up in NYC, I was in law school there–We love it. And we also love Paris, where we both have real connections. So I could only honestly give you three reasons.

• I’m pushing hard for the big DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince comeback album. Will you join me in my efforts?: Yes. I was drafted by the 76ers in the early 70s and developed an attachment to Philly culture and music traditions. Plus their music is high quality and not vile towards women, etc.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life