Racism on the Gridiron: Protest and Tear Gas at Syracuse University

SU student holding the September 25th edition of the Daily Orange (headhigh.syr.edu)

SU student holding the September 25th edition of The Daily Orange (headhigh.syr.edu)

Michael J. Nighan

Anyone entering college in the late 1960s was well aware of the anti-war movement. Less well-known were the campus demonstrations driven by the battle for civil rights. While television and the press had been covering the marches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the sometimes-violent opposition to change by various reactionary groups, and the protests by the NAACP and various Black Power groups, they were on the whole focusing on the national and urban aspects of such protests, with little coverage going to the involvement of college campuses.

My introduction to student activism began when I entered Syracuse University as a newly-minted freshman in the fall of 1969. Despite having a reputation as a “party school” where social consciousness was not as great or as publicly expressed as at say Berkley, or Columbia or Harvard, by the spring of 1970, two distinct lines of protest were under way on our campus.

SU Students Prepare to Burn Nixon in Effigy - May 1970

SU Students Prepare to Burn Nixon in Effigy – May 1970 [Photos provided by Michael Nighan except where indicated]

Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia had sparked the largest protests and mass meetings in SU’s history. As at many campuses, calls were made for the US to get out of Vietnam and for the university’s ROTC program to be abolished. But then, on the afternoon of May 4, while 3,000 of us were gathered at a rally on the Quadrangle, came the announcement that the Ohio National Guard had opened fire on protestors at Kent State, killing four students and wounding 11 others. The reaction was the immediate call for a shutdown of the university, followed by the construction of barricades at street entrances to the campus, the seizure of the Administration Building, the burning of “Tricky Dick” in effigy, and the spray painting of such slogans as “STRIKE”, “Shut it down” and “End the War” on many campus buildings. (1)

Plaque describing the Kent State shootings and the aftermath, Vietnam Memorial of Greater Rochester [Photo: David Kramer]

Plaques describing the Kent State shootings and the aftermath, Vietnam Memorial of Greater Rochester [Photo: David Kramer]

And while Syracuse became one of more than 400 academic institutions across the country that experienced significant student unrest,  an intelligent cooperation between the student leaders, the university administration, and the Syracuse police department resulted in a relatively peaceful week of protests, which ended on May 11 with Chancellor John Corbally, Jr. – who had held the job for less than a year – cancelled the remaining six weeks of classes, although technically the university remained opened. (2)

Daily Orange - Day after Kent State Shootings

The Daily Orange  5/5/70 – Day after Kent State Shootings

But even before the anti-war protests had broken out at SU, the campus was experiencing another wave of activism, one that still resonates today long after the Vietnam era unrest has come and gone and faded into the history books.

Those events started 50 years ago, in February 1969, when members of the Black Student Union, after staging a Black Power demonstration during a basketball game in Manley Field House, issued a manifesto which read in part:

“This demonstration is in protest of the racist attitudes existing in Syracuse University, as well as in the community.”

Soon after, foreshadowing events in 2018, several African American athletes refused to stand for the National Anthem during another basketball game and marched out of the field house, clenched fists held high. Within days, a demand that the university create an Afro-American Studies program was submitted to the administration. (3)  The program was implemented for the fall 1969 semester, with SU becoming one of the first universities in the country to offer such a program. (4)

I got a crash course in the racial unrest at Syracuse and elsewhere in October 1969 when I joined several hundred other students in Manley Field House to hear Dick Gregory and Tom Hayden speak on the topics of “Black Rebellion” and the “White Response to Black Rebellion”. Several demonstrations interrupted the proceedings.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Mar 09, 1969

Earlier that year, Gregory spoke at the City Club in Rochester. In 1968, running for president as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate Gregory received 24,517 votes in New York. Democrat and Chronicle, Mar 09, 1969

As the school, year progressed, the university’s black football players made clear their belief that they were the victims of racial discrimination by the University Athletic Department, and particularly by Head Coach Ben Schwartzwalder. Chief among their complaints was the continued refusal by Schwartzwalder to hire a black assistant coach, an action they believed he had committed to take almost a year before. (Schwartzwalder later tried to claim that because SU football great Floyd Little had appeared at several practice games the previous spring, he should be considered as having acted as an interim assistant coach. This despite the fact that Little had told an interviewer that he was in town to discuss income taxes with his accountant.)

There things stood until April 1970 when, during spring practice, 10 of Syracuse’s 11 black players submitted four formal complaints to Schwartzwalder: 1) that there existed a bias against black players in academic tutoring and counseling, 2) that black players were not being provide with equal participation opportunities on the field, and had been subjected to racist remarks by the coaching staff, 3) Schwartzwalder’s continuing failure to hire a black assistant coach, and 4) medical incompetence by the team doctor (The doctor had been trained as a gynecologist and had spent the majority of his career as an administrator before being hired out of retirement by his good friend Coach Schwartzwalder).

Receiving no response to their grievances, nine of the black players walked out of spring practice in protest of the lack of attention paid to their demands and “the racist behaviors that exist in our football team as perpetuated by the coaching staff”. Schwartzwalder’s view was that, “It’s a farce; they have nothing, no real complaints.” (5)   The dispute between the black players and Schwartzwalder was soon overshadowed by the Cambodia and Kent State protests and the end of the school year.

Ben Schwartzwalder

Ben Schwartzwalder

During the summer, the black players filed a complaint against Syracuse University and the coaching staff with the Syracuse and Onondaga Human Rights Commission. The Commission subsequently chaired several meetings between the parties, but without success.   At this same time, Schwartzwalder finally hired a black assistant coach.   But when it was learned that he’d been given no specific instructions or responsibilities, was seldom invited to coaching staff meetings, and was told not to get involved with the black players’ issues, it became clear that he was an assistant coach in name only.

As the fall semester began, it was uncertain which, if any, of the black players would be allowed to return to the team. Two were eventually invited back, with the others handed a statement to sign requesting reinstatement.  Realizing that their actions would probably eliminate the opportunity to ever again play football at Syracuse, thus jeopardizing their chances for a career in professional football, the striking black players nevertheless rejected the statement because it did not positively address any of their concerns, and because it absolved Schwartzwalder and the Athletic Department from any responsibility for the spring boycott. As a result, when joined by two other black players, on August 28 the nine players found themselves indefinitely suspended from the team. Mistakenly labeled by the press as the “Syracuse 8”, the nine players were:

Allen, Bulls, Godbolt, Harrell, Lobon, McGill, Muhammad, Walker, and Womack (Syracuse University Libraries)

Allen, Bulls, Godbolt, Harrell, Lobon, McGill, Muhammad, Walker, and Womack (Syracuse University Libraries)

Al Newton
Dana Harrell
Duane Walker
Clarence McGill
John Godbolt
Richard Bulls
Greg Allen
John Lobon
Ronald Womack

Greg Allen was a classmate of mine in the School of Journalism, now the Newhouse School of Public Communications. (6) At a group interview held with a number of journalism students, he explain that, although he’d been invited back to the team by the coaching staff, he felt that the issues raised by the black players were too important to allow Schwartzwalder to play one group of black players off against another. He also explained that the suspended players had been assured by the chancellor’s office that the suspension would not jeopardize their athletic scholarships or their ability to graduate and receive an SU degree.

Several days later former Syracuse football star Jim Brown got involved.   After a series of interviews with the players, Schwartzwalder, the coaching staff and Chancellor Corbally, he held a press conference where he outlined his findings: 1) Corbally said the matter was in Schwartzwalder’s hands and out of his, 2) the black players said they would return to the squad if an “impartial monitoring system” were put in place, 3) white players had said that under no circumstances would they accept the black players back (a position they reiterated in subsequent newspaper interviews) and 4) after informing Schwartzwalder of the black players desire to return if certain conditions were met, Schwartzwalder had replied that under no circumstances would he accept the players back. Ending his press conference, Brown said that, “The problem lies with Ben Schwartzwalder and the Athletic Department….. Ben has been a very stubborn man, a strong man always, and now he’s an old man.”  

Shortly thereafter, the Syracuse Human Rights Commission sent a telegram to Schwartzwalder stating, “Urgently request that you restore eight black football players to the Syracuse squad… (and that) this matter has been placed before the New York State Division of Human Rights…” Ben ignored the telegram.

Within days Chancellor Corbally established the Committee on Allegations of Racial Discrimination in the Football Program, comprised of trustees, faculty-members and students, to thoroughly review the black players’ charges. However, he also issued a statement that it was not advisable to overrule Schwartzwalder and return the black players to the squad “at this time”.

The Daily Orange, September 25, 1969

The Daily Orange, September 25, 1970

Several days of confusion then ensured with Corbally finally ordering the reinstatement of the suspended players. But when they showed up for practice before the first home game on September 26, Schwartzwalder declared four of them to be “academically ineligible” (the justification for his action was never made public), the others were ordered to undergo complete physicals which, conveniently, could not be completed in time for the game.   When later questioned by a Sports Illustrated reporter why he was not making more of an effort to explain his position to the press and public, Schwartzwalder dismissed the question with, “I don’t talk to Communists, draft dodgers, flag burners, or people trying to destroy our country!”

On September 25, members of the Black Student Union and other concerned citizens, fearing possible violence, demonstrated in front of the Syracuse city hall calling on the mayor to cancel the next day’s game because of fears for public safety. When the mayor, and later Chancellor Corbally, refused to do so, a call went out for a strike (or more correctly, a boycott) of the next day’s game.

And so Saturday, September 26 arrived.

Archbold Statium- 1970s (now site of Carrier Dome)

Archbold Statium- 1970s (now site of Carrier Dome)

Football Program - Sept. 26, 1970

Football Program – Sept. 26, 1970. Kansas won 31 – 14 before an estimated crowd of 25,000.

Along with the other members of the SU Marching Band, I showed up at Crouse College near Archbold Stadium (which was torn down in 1979 to make room for the Carrier Dome) about 11:00 to get ready for the afternoon game. I was aware that a boycott of the game had been called for, but in walking from my dorm on the other side of the campus, saw no sign that one was being organized.

About an hour before the game was to start, we began wandering over to our usual assembly point for the band’s entrance into Archbold to perform our pre-game show. But on arriving we were told that today we’d be entering through the main entrance. No explanation was given and the change made no sense as that entrance was situated at the top of a hill which meant that the band would have to march up 60 or 70 steps to reach the field. We were even more surprised to hear that, rather than our standard formation, we‘d be lining up four abreast, with the sousaphone players and our beefiest men in front, followed by the rest of the men along the two sides with the women band members, flag carriers, and baton twirlers in the middle. Then we found out why the change of plans.

About 200 to 300 students and other protestors of all races had indeed set up a picket line and were blocking fans from getting into Archbold, with several dozen police, including some on horse back, keeping an eye on things (we later learned that heavily armed cops had been stationed out-of-sight in case the demonstration turned violent. Not a good mental image just four months after the Kent State shootings). It turned out that some genius somewhere in the university administration had had the bright idea of breaking the picket line by sending the 120+ members of the marching band charging up the steps and into the stadium!

At that moment the thought struck several of us that, for many reasons, using the marching band, which contained several African American members, as a bettering ram was the wrong thing to do. A few of us left the column to argue the matter with the band director. But just at this point, before we got very far, the pickets began walking away from the entrance, and the crowd – including the marching band – filed in.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, while the football game was underway, the protestors split into two groups with most of the black protestors congregating at the Black Student Union, while 100 or so, mainly white demonstrators moved down to Marshall Street, the main shopping and eating district for university students, both groups being shadowed by the police.

Armed Police at Syracuse University - Sept. 1970 newspaper photo

Armed Police at Syracuse University – Sept. 1970 newspaper photo

Going forward, the stories, statements and opinions about what happened next are all over the board.

While all was quiet around the Black Student Union, apparently some kids, whether SU students or local high school students isn’t clear, began “liberating” merchandise from two or three of the stores on Marshall Street, with the result that several shotgun-wielding cops began to patrol the area after Chief of Police Thomas Sardino in his “supercop” car arrived, sirens blaring, lights flashing, to personally direct matters. News of the unfolding events rapidly spread around campus and the crowd grew as several hundred SU students congregated to see what was going on.

It was at this point, with the football game over and after packing away our instruments, but still in our marching band uniforms and totally unaware of what was going on, that a group of us walked down to M Street, as we usually did after a game, to get a hamburger. As we walked along we were joined by several black students who told us that they’d heard that a “riot” was underway.

We turned the corner onto M Street, which was blocked by cop cars, with a police helicopter flying low overhead, arriving just in time to see mounted cops, batons swinging, charge a crowd on the “Beach”, a strip of grass along M Street that was a student hangout. Then, after several rocks were thrown at the cops, we heard a whirring sound and suddenly a cloud of tear gas and pepper spray filled the air as Sardino ordered his men to fire up, their “pepper fog” generators – which looked for all the world like a modern-day leaf blower – as other cops began lobbing tear gas canisters. As luck would have it, our group was only a couple of hundred feet away and the wind blew the gas directly in our faces. True or not, we were later told by some of the spectators that the tear gas was directed toward our group because it was the only racially-mixed gathering on the street.

Tear Gas on Marshall Street - Sept. 26, 1970 newspaper photo

Tear Gas on Marshall Street – Sept. 26, 1970 newspaper photo

If you’ve ever been pepper sprayed or tear gassed, you know what happens. Immediately your eyes water, your nose runs, you choke and gasp for air.   Depending on the intensity of the exposure, this goes on for many minutes, with your eyes and lungs burning long after. I think we received a medium dose. It would be more exciting to say that I was one of those who picked up a tear gas canister and threw it back, but the reality is that I was one of the many who bolted for cover.

Police Charging Down Marshall Street - Sept. 26, 1970 newspaper photo

Police Charging Down Marshall Street – Sept. 26, 1970 newspaper photo

Being effectively out of commission and now out-of-range, after someone handed around a cup of water to wash our eyes, we heard that in the midst of the disturbances, Sardino’s cop car had been zooed and some windows along M Street and elsewhere on the campus had been smashed by rocks.

When I could see reasonably well again, I saw that the crowd; demonstrators, vandals, thieves, spectators and innocent bystanders alike, were running in several directions, some being pursued by the cops, most being left to their own devices. A bunch of us made it to a nearby campus building where we sat for the next hour or so until things quieted down. By the end of the disturbance, six rioters, or demonstrators, depending on your perspective, had been arrested. Luckily, there were no serious injuries in what became the most serious clash between students and police in Syracuse’s history.

(If nothing else, I can tell you that you don’t want to be wearing a heavy wool marching band uniform if you’re going to get hit with pepper spray and tear gas. No matter how many times it’s dry cleaned, you can never get the smell out completely. Nor does tear gas mixed with tetrachloroethylene cleaning fluid make for a pleasant aroma.)

Syracuse Herald American Sept. 27, 1970

Syracuse Herald American Sept. 27, 1970

The next day’s Syracuse Herald American headlined their front pages with “Mob rampages in university area”, while the Daily Orange, the university‘s student newspaper, referred to the incident as a “confrontation”.

The Daily Orange- Day After the Confrontation

The Daily Orange 9/27/70- Day After the Confrontation

During the following weeks rallies in support of the black players were held, but calls for further boycotts of home games had little effect. Black student leaders pointed to the restrained approach of the Syracuse police, including the fact that no police set foot on the campus when predominantly white students barricaded the university and took over the admin building in May, while dozens of police, many armed, were deployed near Archbold when the facility was being picketed by black players and students in September.

Finally, on December 9, the Chancellor’s Committee released the report of their findings on the accusations made by the black football players.

The report’s executive summary concluded, in a convoluted sentence that satisfied no one, “…racism in the Syracuse University Athletic Department is real, chronic, largely unintentional, and sustained and complicated unwittingly by many modes of behavior common in American athletics and long-standing at Syracuse University.”

Later in the report, the Committee characterized conduct described by the black players as racism as simply, “insensitivy”, “authoritarianism”, and “unwarranted rigidity of response”. However, two of the black players’ charges were found to have merit, albeit in an oblique manner.   The Committee found that, “The frequent use of terms which are widely considered to be racial slurs and derogatory ethnic names is verified in the testimony…(However) the coaches insisted that such names and terms were never meant to be derogatory, but were simply a common, feature of the special and intense relationship inherent in athletic life.” Additionally, “The Committee concludes that the players increasingly did not conform to the coaches’ conception of the student-athlete. Insensitive to changing student concerns, the coaches regarded as troublemakers those students whose personal values and political beliefs seem to conflict with their own.”

The report also chastised Schwartzwalder and the Athletic Department for being “grossly insensitive” in not hiring a black assistant coach. Most importantly, Schwartzwalder’s suspension of the black players following the spring 1970 boycott of practice, without talking into account the broader context of the action was “an act of institutional racism unworthy of a great university.   As to complaints about discriminatory practices in academic advisors, football position assignments, medical care, etc., the committee shrugged these off by concluding that such, “incidents cited by black players were also experienced by white players.    

As to recommendations for change, these included the replacement of the Athletic Governing Board by a more representative Athletic Policy Board. While the ouster of the university’s Athletic Director (technically Schwartzwalder’s boss) was not specifically recommended, many observers viewed that as something the committee strongly implied. The report also recommended that a grievance procedure for athletes be created and that the suspended players be “red shirted” to allow them an additional year on the team.   The establishment of a communications education program to facilitate understanding between players, coaching staff and administration was also called for. Finally, the report concluded that racism existed in many aspects of Syracuse University and that the Chancellor must, “continue to use all his administrative powers to eliminate all racist practices which, either covertly or overtly, threaten minority groups.”

The next day Chancellor Corbally announced that he viewed the recommendations made by the Committee as realistic and that he intended to see them implemented.  However, to the dismay of many, he further stated that, “I find no mandate or suggestion in the report or its recommendations that leads me to conclude that personnel changes are necessary…” So Schwartzwalder’s job was safe.

After forcing the reinstatement of the suspended players, Corbally immediately ran into opposition from alumni (make that wealthy alumni), and from the university’s board of trustees. Then, without warning, in February 1971 Corbally announced that he was stepping down after serving less than two years as chancellor, to become president of the University of Illinois system. Although the new job was significantly more prestigious and a logical career move, speculation abounded that Corbally was too radical for the trustees and had been forced out.

Melvin Eggers, SU’s provost, was appointed to replace Corbally. Eggers was far less committed to change, and the initiatives instituted by Corbally, now given far more lip service then backing, sputtered to a halt. By mutual agreement, or rather mutual disagreement, the Syracuse 8 never rejoined the football team, no further protests of any significance occurred, and other matters absorbed the attention of the SU community.

Although all of the Syracuse 8 graduated, none ever played professional football.  Schwartzwalder finally retired in 1973 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame nine years later.  He died in 1993.  In 2008, as portrayed by actor Dennis Quaid, a somewhat sanitized version of Coach Ben appeared in the Ernie Davis biopic, “The Express”.

A new century brought a new chancellor to Syracuse, Dr. Nancy Cantor. Already widely-know in academia as a strong advocate of gender and racial equality, Chancellor Cantor initiated a review of the university’s handling of the Syracuse 8 affair and, concluding that a great wrong had been done, pushed for a public acknowledgement of the university’s mistakes of the past.

2006 Ceremony Honoring the Syracuse 8

2006 Ceremony Honoring the Syracuse 8

As a result, in 2006 SU hosted a two day tribute to the Syracuse 8. (7) They received a formal apology from the university and were awarded the Chancellor’s Medal, SU’s highest commendation. And at half time of that weekend’s football game, they finally presented with their letterman jackets, with Jim Brown again on hand to support the players. In 2011, the university instituted the Syracuse 8 Scholarship, to be awarded to a first year, African American or Latino student, “who exhibited leadership skills and participated in community service activities during high school.”

In her review of past events, Chancellor Cantor said of the Syracuse 8, “At the core of what happened was that their willingness to stand up and speak about what had been long and daily slights were met with an unresponsive, some might say deaf, institutional ear…At the core of ….inner-group distress, of chilly climates, hostile climates, of the inability of places to be places for talent to flourish (must be the question)’How willing are you to listen?’ ”

______________________________________________________________

(1) Overshadowed by subsequent events, one of the demands made by the Strike Committee in May 1970 was that Syracuse University contribute $100,000 for the bail of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton who was then in jail.

(2) Coincidently, Corbally’s formal investiture as Chancellor had been held on April 30, 1970, the same night Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia.

(3) In order to avoid the anachronistic use of the term African American, from this point on in the narrative of the events of 1970, I will refer to black players, black students, etc. as that was the accepted usage by all parties at the time, and continues to be used today by such groups as Black Lives Matter.

(4) A conjunction of historical currents occurred at Kent State where, in addition to being the location of the most tragic anti-war protest, Black History Month was first proposed by students and faculty in 1969 and first observed there in Feb 1970.

(5) In his early days as head coach at Syracuse, Schwartzwalder had been regarded as a racial progressive, actively seeking out African American players when other colleges, particularly those in the Deep South, were keeping their squads lily white.   But signs of his true beliefs had been evident years before, most (in)famously, in 1953 when the Syracuse “Orange” made its first (and only) appearance at the Orange Bowl opposite the “Crimson Tide” of the University of Alabama. SU’s sole black player, Avatus Stone, a star performer, had been sidelined with a leg injury for most of the season. However, he’d been certified medically fit before the bowl game. With the fitness of several other players in question, Schwartzwalder certainly needed Stone on the field. But there was a problem. The president of the University of Alabama had made it clear that he would order his head coach to boycott the Orange Bowl if Syracuse fielded a black player. Faced with this threat, Schwartzwalder benched Stone. Karma apparently came home to roost when SU was defeated 61-6, the worst shellacking in Orange Bowl history.

By comparison, the University of Buffalo, with two black players, was placed in a similar position in 1958. Having been invited to participate in the Tangerine Bowl, they were informed that the local laws prohibited the stadium from being used for “mixed race” sporting events. The Buffalo team voted to refuse to participate in the game because of the insult to their teammates.

Syracuse University Libraries

Aug. 5, 1964. Syracuse University Libraries

(6) An interesting historical note is that the Newhouse Communications Complex, dedicated by President Johnson on Aug. 5, 1964, is where he delivered his “Gulf of Tonkin” speech, in which in response to an engagement between vessels of the North Vietnamese navy and the US destroyer “Maddox”, Johnson announced that, “I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our Government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in southeast Asia.” This became the first step in the eventual massive escalation of the war by the United States.

(7) The ninth member of the Syracuse 8, John Godbolt, could not be located by the university, his team mates or his family.

(Note: Although there’s still a degree of confusion and disagreement over the events leading up to, during, and after the 1970 boycott by the black football players at Syracuse university, the most complete account can be found in, “Leveling the Playing Field: The Story of the Syracuse 8”  by David Marc.)

See also

A Blast (of cold air) From the Past: The Syracuse University Marching Band and Macy’s 1971 Thanksgiving Day Parade

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