BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Forty years ago, Alabama football fans watched Southern California and a Black running back named Sam Cunningham trounce coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Crimson Tide in a game widely credited with helping start the integration of Southern football.
Fans weren’t the only ones watching Alabama football back then. The FBI, apparently with the approval of then-director J. Edgar Hoover, was secretly keeping an eye on a civil rights lawsuit filed by Blacks against the legendary coach during the same period.
Documents released to The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act show that for almost two years, agents tracked the suit filed by a prominent Black lawyer against Bryant, the University of Alabama and others to make Bryant recruit Black football players. Building a file, agents followed the court docket and snipped stories from newspapers about the case, sending the findings to the agency’s office responsible for investigating civil rights crimes.
The FBI won’t explain why it was interested in a civil lawsuit by a Black student organization against a prominent White football coach. The agency kept track of possible civil rights violations and often monitored public figures and civil rights leaders under Hoover.
But one of the FBI forms in the Bryant file is marked twice with a handwritten capital “H’” – a clear indication that Hoover both saw the document and approved of the snooping, said author Curt Gentry, who wrote J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets, a definitive biography on Hoover and the FBI under his leadership.
“He was the only one in the bureau allowed to use the ‘H’ initial,” Gentry said. “It means he saw it, and he obviously approved it if he didn’t do anything to stop it. He didn’t personally approve everything, but something like that he certainly would have known about.”
Bryant, one of America’s best-known sports figures at the time, already had won three national championships with the Crimson Tide. The Black lawyer who sued him, U.W. Clemon, had made a name for himself by taking on Alabama’s all-White establishment in numerous court fights over desegregation and police brutality. He later would become the state’s first Black federal judge.
Clemon said in a recent interview that he never knew of the FBI monitoring until informed by AP. He had his suspicions about why it was authorized, however.
“Bear Bryant was a god in Alabama in those days; maybe it was just a matter of keeping up. And you have to recall the thinking of some of the Southern FBI agents at the time,” Clemon said. “Maybe they thought I was doing something illegal. Maybe they just wanted to pursue it because Black people were suing Bear Bryant.”
The agent who sent notes on the Bryant case to Washington died years ago. A retired agent who once worked in the FBI’s Birmingham office, Larry A. Long, said in an interview the bureau likely monitored the Bryant case because it claimed violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“When you received an allegation of a civil rights violation, the civil rights unit had to be advised,” said Long, who left the FBI in 1999 after 30 years. “This sounds typical for the time.”
Filed in 1969, the suit was dismissed in 1971 after the university gave a handful of scholarships to Black athletes. The monitoring ended then, too, when Bryant’s FBI file was just 27 pages thick.
Bryant and the integration of intercollegiate athletics in the South were a major topic throughout the 1960s.
The Civil Rights Act outlawed racial segregation in areas including public education, but progress was slow in overturning practices of the Jim Crow era in the Deep South. It wasn’t until 1966 that Kentucky signed the first Black football players in the Southeastern Conference.
In both a sworn statement in the lawsuit and in interviews from the period, Bryant said he’d been trying to recruit Black athletes to play football at Alabama for years before the Afro-American Association of the University of Alabama filed the suit in July 1969.
Bryant already had Blacks on his team as non-scholarship walk-on players, but it wasn’t until five months after the federal suit was filed that Alabama signed its first Black football player to a scholarship, Wilbur Jackson. The next year, 1971, another player became the first Black to appear in a varsity football game for ‘Bama.
By August 1970 – just weeks before Southern Cal routed an all-white Alabama team 42-21 in Birmingham, with Cunningham running for two touchdowns and 135 yards — the file forwarded by Alabama agents to Washington included a note that Clemon had questioned Bryant under oath.
During the deposition, Bryant said his staff had been scouting Black players as early as 1966. Yet he recalled telling a Black high school coach that it was “a little too soon” to have a Black player at Alabama and implied that the state’s racial climate was a problem.
Bryant died in 1983. Clemon said in a recent interview that Black high school coaches would have testified that Alabama didn’t seem truly interested in attracting Black players until after the loss to Southern California in 1970. The game was viewed by many as opening fans’ eyes to the idea that racial integration was inevitable if Alabama wanted to have a successful football program.
“Bear Bryant got religion after the USC game, and it was dismissed without trial,” said Clemon, who went on to serve in the Alabama Legislature and became the state’s first Black federal judge in 1980. Now retired from the bench, he is an attorney in private practice in Birmingham.
Gentry said it wasn’t surprising that the FBI would have followed a major lawsuit involving Bryant considering how many people were being monitored at the time from all walks of life.
“They did it with actors, they did it with authors,” Gentry said. “(Hoover) had fairly extensive sports files.”
Taylor Watson, curator of a University of Alabama museum named for Bryant and dedicated to ‘Bama football, said archives including Bryant’s personal files don’t mention any reference to the FBI or indicate the coach had any interaction with the agency.
He also noted that a Black player had been signed and others walked on prior to the loss to USC, even though none had played in a varsity game for Bryant.
“The idea that the Southern Cal game meant they could integrate at Alabama is the greatest myth in college sports,” Watson said.