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Lecture connects football with civil rights

In order to explain the connection between football and civil rights, one guest speaker traced the relationship between players and coaches through time.

“The past that informs football and our country as we know it takes place in the sixties,” said Samuel Freedman. “To understand this interweaving, we must travel back to this era.”

Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University and a columnist for The New York Times, gave a lecture titled “Football and Civil Rights” at Carroll Hall Thursday.

The address was presented by the Center for the Study of the American South as part of its Hutchins Lecture Series. Freedman wrote a book about how the integration of collegiate football benefitted the civil rights movement in America.

About 35 people attended the lecture, which was held at 4:30 p.m. in the Freedom Forum of Carroll Hall.

“It was a good mix of community members and students,” said Jocelyn Neal, the center’s director.

Freedman spoke for more than an hour about how football coaches and players at historically black colleges contributed to the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

“There would have been no civil rights movement without black colleges,” Freedman said.

Freedman explained that separate athletics programs during the time caused the development of a strictly black football league.

He said prominent African-American football coaches like Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson made sure their players were successful both in the classroom and on the field. This strategy developed strong African-American leaders, Freedman said.

Freedman compared James Harris, a player for Grambling State University and later the first black NFL quarterback, to Rosa Parks.

“Football was the sport of the region, and had an immense cultural impact,” Freedman said.

Freshmen David Witkowski and Megan Yelenic said they attended the lecture for extra credit in their classes.

“I had a list of lectures to choose from, though, and I chose this because I thought it was interesting,” freshman David Witkowski said. “I like football, and the combination with civil rights is really interesting.”

Witkowski said he enjoyed the experience.

“It gave another platform to look at (civil rights) issues that we can relate to,” said Witkowski. “As a big football fan, it makes it more personal.”

Yelenic said that the lecture related to many of the themes her class has discussed.

“It reinforced the ideas we’re talking about in anthropology,” said Yelenic. “Our terms came to life in his lecture.”

Freedman was chosen to speak based on suggestions from faculty connected to the Center for the Study of the American South.

“He came highly recommended,” Neal said. She added that the lecture fit with the center’s theme for the year.

Freedman said that he enjoyed speaking to students and community members.

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“I’m delighted to be here,” Freedman said. “I wanted to go to school here, but I couldn’t get in. I’m delighted to come to Chapel Hill and the journalism school in this capacity.”

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