The Activists of Crimson Tide Country
On June 9, 1964, in the summer heat of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a group of protesters led by the Reverend T. Y. Rogers, Jr., a disciple of Martin Luther King, Jr., planned a march from the First African Baptist Church to the county courthouse, in protest of the building’s segregated water fountains and bathrooms. They made it less than twenty yards before police, sanctioned by Governor George Wallace, attacked them. One of the protesters, Irene Byrd, who was sixteen at the time, ran into the church for safety, only to be hit with tear gas and water hoses shooting in from the stained-glass windows. “Some people went to the hospital, some people went to jail,” Byrd, now a retired school principal, told me. When she was finally able to leave the church, she faced a line of white Tuscaloosans jeering at her from across the street.
Byrd enrolled at the University of Alabama in 1967, four years after Wallace stood in front of the university’s doors to unsuccessfully block integration. “I guess I was a daredevil,” she told me with a laugh. At the time, the school’s football team, the Crimson Tide, was all white, and a recently crowned national champion. The coach, Paul (Bear) Bryant, once an opponent of integration, had yet to successfully bring in an African-American recruit. In the spring, five black students—Dock Rone, Andrew Pernell, Art Dunning, Melvin Leverett, and Jerome Tucker—tried to walk on at training camp. None of them made the squad, but their efforts helped set the stage for the integration of the program, three years later, when Bryant recruited Wilbur Jackson, a running back from Ozark, Alabama. Jackson was ineligible to play his freshman year, when the team opened their season against the University of Southern California Trojans. The game, which took place at Legion Field, in Birmingham, is said to have been planned by Bryant, who knew that a segregated team could no longer compete at the highest level. The Trojans trounced the Tide on their home turf 42–21, with U.S.C.’s black fullback, Sam Cunningham, running for two touchdowns. The drubbing, a display of what social progress could do, helped nudge white Alabamians into step with the rest of the nation.
Today, Paul W. Bryant Drive runs directly behind the First African Baptist Church, linking the front gate of the city’s oldest surviving Civil War burial ground, Greenwood Cemetery, to Bryant-Denny Stadium, where the Crimson Tide play their home games. On a recent sunny morning, before a game against Mississippi State, I walked down that street to meet a group of student protesters, known by the hashtag #Bamasits, who had planned to gather at the student entrance before their latest demonstration. In parking lots around the stadium, families played cornhole and milled around grills set up in the beds of pickup trucks. Students holding koozie-covered beers and red Solo cups listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” blaring from the stadium’s speakers.
At 11 A.M., just before kickoff, as the Tide waited in the locker room, Alabama’s marching band played the national anthem and, as it had done at the previous two home games, the #Bamasits protesters remained silent and seated in the front rows of the student section. It was the first Saturday after Donald Trump’s election as President, and there was “an eerie feeling in the air,” one of the organizers, Fitzgerald Mosley, told me.
This was the group’s third demonstration of the season. It staged its first protest on October 1st, at a game against Kentucky, much to the annoyance of many in the sold-out crowd of more than a hundred thousand people. Within days, word of #Bamasits spread, and a backlash began. After posting a photo of her participation in the protest on Instagram, Akiesha Anderson, a law student, got a deluge of hateful comments. After speaking up about them, she received a death threat. Another African-American student, Jamal Commander, received a racially charged death threat from a white student, Ryan Parish, on the university’s Student Ticket Exchange Facebook group. (The university suspended Parish and issued a statement condemning the threats.)
At the next home game, against Texas A. & M., on October 22nd, #Bamasits activists found themselves, mid-protest, surrounded by some two hundred students waving American flags and chanting “U.S.A.!” It was a counter-protest, organized by Cody Leach, a freshman majoring in political science. (The donations for the flags were solicited on Facebook and GoFundMe.) When I asked him what inspired the counter-protest, Leach declined to comment. He had looked me up on Twitter, and because I had favorited some anti-Trump tweets he was concerned that I would represent him unfairly. Leach did, however, give an interview to Breitbart News, a platform associated with white nationalism. “The national anthem is more than a two-minute inconvenience before a football game,” he told Breitbart. “It stands for so much more, and so should you.”
A student named Michael Coates, a central organizer of the #Bamasits protests, said the symbolism of the anthem is precisely the point. “If we stand and put our hand over our heart,” Coates told me, “then we’re pledging allegiance to freedoms that we’re not receiving.” #Bamasits does not have a set of demands so much as a litany of intersectional issues, from ending police brutality to protecting the environment, on which they hope to start a dialogue. Teryn Shipman, a sophomore from Atlanta, told me that she wanted to call attention to other campus efforts underway to change university policies, such as reforming the notoriously discriminatory Greek system, renaming school buildings that are named after slave owners, and hiring an undergraduate diversity-inclusion officer.
But following the election of Donald Trump, the group focussed their efforts on expressing their concern with what the President-elect represents. After the Tide’s win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs, about fifty protesters assembled at the north entrance of Bryant-Denny Stadium before marching to the Tuscaloosa Federal Building and Courthouse, where they planned to hold a rally. Some held signs that read “#OurVoicesMatter” and “White Silence is Violence.” As the group trudged down University Boulevard, a popular postgame hangout for football fans, hecklers taunted them with Trump campaign colloquialisms like “Losers!” and the localized “Roll, Trump, Roll!”
When the group arrived at the courthouse, members gave themselves a round of applause for doing what was impossible in 1964. Standing under the building’s tall Athenian columns, they took to voicing fears about the hatred and racism in their community and across the country. Counter-protesters soon arrived, carrying Trump/Pence paraphernalia, before they were ushered away by police.
Teryn Shipman, wearing a “Black. No Sugar, No Cream” T-shirt, stepped forward and offered a few encouraging words. “This is just a comma,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.” I remembered something Irene Byrd told me, not long before. “You know the handwriting on the wall,” she said. “You know that, basically, there are things that, as black people, we have been fighting a long time.”