Saturday, January 3, 2015

Q&A with Andrew Maraniss

Andrew Maraniss is the author of the new book Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South. The book examines the life of Wallace, the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in the 1960s. The former associate director of media relations at the Vanderbilt Athletic Department, Maraniss is a partner at McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations in Nashville, Tennessee.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Perry Wallace? 

A: It goes back to when I was 19 years old, 25 years ago. I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt; I had a sportswriting scholarship and was a history major.

I read about Perry and the racism directed at him—[during one game] at halftime he sat in the locker room holding hands with his one black teammate, Godfrey Dillard, trying to get the strength to get back for the second half.

I was taking a black history course, and I asked my professor if I could write a paper about Perry Wallace, and she said of course. I interviewed him; I wrote two papers about him. I was the sports editor of the school newspaper, and I wrote columns about him. We stayed in touch.

Eight years ago, I decided I wanted to write a book. I e-mailed him and asked, would you be willing to spend the time it would take for all these interviews to do this? He said yes. 

Q: How did Wallace’s upbringing in Nashville affect him?

A: There are two ways to look at it. One is the support and strength he found—he called it his cocoon. The positive aspect, ironically, to segregation was the strong black community in Nashville near Fisk University, Tennessee State University, Meharry Medical University, Jefferson Street with its thriving black businesses.

Pearl High School was the crown jewel of the community; every African-American person in Nashville went to Pearl, and there was great pride associated with it. The teachers were people who were incredibly smart; they had master’s degrees but were denied opportunities in the professional world.

All his parents’ kids went to college. There was a lot of warmth and support from his family and his neighborhood.

On the other side, he was growing up in a segregated city. As a 12-year-old, he watched sit-ins. He was fully aware of the craziness of the situation. His goal as a kid was to get out, and he saw basketball as a way to do that. 

Q: You describe Wallace’s decision to attend Vanderbilt as “a turning point in history.” What were some of the reasons for its importance? 

A: His mom, who was a cleaning lady downtown, would bring home magazines, and [the kids] would see pictures of a world they didn’t know in Nashville.

Part of that possibility for him was to use basketball as a way out. He was recruited by a number of schools in the North and the West, but on recruiting trips he felt black athletes were exploited for their athletic ability. His term was, I’m not going to trade one plantation for another.

He began to consider Vanderbilt, which would have been impossible two years earlier when it was still segregated. He was impressed by the engineering department, by the [basketball program] and by the way the coach treated his parents with respect.

[The school had recently] appointed a new progressive chancellor, Alexander Heard, who thought he could send a signal by making a bold move in the athletic realm and encouraged the coach to recruit a black player….it made a lot of sense on both sides. Perry understood how difficult this was going to be, not just on campus but while touring…colleges all over the South. 

Q: You describe Wallace’s difficult experiences with racism, for example when Vanderbilt played Ole Miss. How was he able to withstand the treatment he received as an African-American basketball player in the South during that period? 

A: It took tremendous courage, more than people even imagine. He had to do it all by himself. After freshman year, there were no other African-American teammates. His coaches and teammates didn’t go out of their way to be difficult but they [weren’t especially helpful].

His family had a deep expression of faith, and his mom said to put on the full armor of God. He also had an understanding of the proper pioneer’s response to the situation. He embraced the role of the pioneer, and part of that was not quitting. As hard as it was, he knew he had to complete the assignment.

He’s also a very strong person—that’s where the title comes from—physically, mentally, emotionally. I don’t think most people could have done it, but Perry Wallace had the resolve.

There’s a story in the book where his [older] sister shows up in Perry’s kindergarten class and the teacher was out of the room and the kids were going berserk. There was only one kid—[Perry]-- at his desk doing his work. [She said she knew] her little brother would always do the right thing. 

Wallace and Maraniss, photo by Keith Miles
Q: Beyond his huge decision to become the player who desegregated the SEC, what was Wallace’s role in the day-to-day civil rights struggle during his time at Vanderbilt? 

A: A lot of athletes are unwilling to get involved in things beyond sports. That wasn’t the case with Perry Wallace. He was picked even as a freshman to lead a meeting with Chancellor Heard.

[In addition,] there was an issue during his college career about the interstate, I-40, being built through Nashville; it was going to destroy black neighborhoods. He had a choice to speak out, and risk alienating white Vanderbilt alums. He made the choice to speak out about it, about the impact on businesses along Jefferson Street. That was a small thing, but a brave decision on his part.

When Martin Luther King was assassinated, there was a peaceful march, and Perry wanted to participate. With all the violence taking place around the country, he was concerned that the administration at Vanderbilt would perceive his participation the wrong way, that he was encouraging violence.

He was always thinking many steps ahead. Before he participated, he went to the athletic department and laid out exactly what he was doing, that it was a peaceful march. He was able to get their buy-in, but do exactly what he wanted. 

Q: What was his attitude toward the antiwar movement? 

A: He told me that a lot of white people on campus who were sympathetic to how black students were being treated were also antiwar. Hanging out with those people, he began thinking more skeptically about the war. He was seeing high school friends not coming back from the war, or being profoundly changed by it.

His inner feelings were antiwar, but he was conflicted. He said he didn’t need another battlefield; it was already difficult challenging segregation. On top of that, being vocal about the war was more than he [could deal with] at that time…. 

Q: How long did it take to write the book? 

A: Eight years. The first interview was in 2006 with Roy Skinner, Perry’s coach. I interviewed more than 80 people. The first few years were the research, and then the writing. 

Q: Are you working on another book? 

A: Not yet—I’m still putting my energy, outside my day job, into this one. It’s time to be thinking about that—it will be narrative nonfiction, likely something with sports and history. 

Q: What did Perry Wallace think of the book? 

A: It’s been really gratifying. He said for decades he was a forgotten man. I think he’s pleased that people can appreciate his story. After he left Vanderbilt in 1970, he was not invited back until 1989. It’s improved; he has a good relationship with Vanderbilt now.

He came back to Nashville a couple of weeks ago for a series of events relating to the book, and it was really, really emotional. We had a crowd at the downtown library of more than 400 people. We had a line of people [including] older white people with tears in their eyes, apologizing, saying, I wish I had known what you were going through. We went to his high school, and people talked about what an inspiration he had been. It was really touching…. 

Q: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the book? 

A: It’s challenging for me [to get people to] understand that this is not just a basketball book, and not just a formulaic overcoming-obstacles book. It’s difficult, when the picture on the cover is of a guy dunking a basketball!  

I hope people who might not ordinarily give it a chance will recognize there’s more to it than they might expect, especially when race is such a [large] issue again in this country. This could be a springboard toward a real conversation about it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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