First in a three-part series
In 1964, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick was on his way to becoming one of the greatest running backs to ever play high school football in Charlotte.
As a junior, he scored five touchdowns in one game and gained over 10 yards every time he carried the ball, twice what the best players averaged.
In an era when black high schools were mostly ignored, Kirkpatrick became the first African-American to make the Charlotte Observer all-county team.
On the November day when Kirkpatrick and 10 other players came to Memorial Stadium to pose for that all-star team photograph, he tossed a football with Myers Park High senior all-American quarterback Rick Arrington and junior end Harris Woodside.
You should come to Myers Park next year, Kirkpatrick remembers them saying.
Charlotte schools started to integrate seven years earlier. But change was slow. By 1964, more than 90 percent of black students still attended all-black schools.
Kirkpatrick soon learned he had a choice because of a boundary shift: Stay at all-black Second Ward High with his teammates and neighbors for his senior year of 1965 or go to predominantly white Myers Park, where college coaches would be more likely to see him play.
Kirkpatrick’s decision would change his life, but it would change Charlotte, too. What happened in his senior year would set his city on edge, draw national attention and eventually give black players opportunities to play in one of the most prestigious games in the Carolinas.
It was a violent year for civil rights. Black activist Malcolm X, who advocated change by any means necessary, was gunned down in a Harlem ballroom in February 1965. Weeks later in Selma, Ala., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped organize a march for voting rights, and police used tear gas, clubs and whips against the protesters. Race riots that summer in the Watts section of Los Angeles left 34 dead and thousands injured.
Racial turbulence would soon descend on Charlotte, sweeping Kirkpatrick into the center of one of the city’s most volatile civil rights cases, played out at the passionate intersection of football and race. As the case unfolded, night riders would bomb the homes of four civil rights leaders, shattering, as The New York Times would write, “the pride of this racially progressive city.”
Now 64 and a retired educator, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick has for years told his story in February during Black History Month to young people in Oregon. But not in Charlotte, where only his family and former teammates know what he endured 47 years ago. He talks about being 16 and choosing to straddle two worlds.
Know who you are, Kirkpatrick says. Then when you’re confronted with the unknown, you’re ready.
Eyes straight ahead
Kirkpatrick never worried about how he would perform at Myers Park. Since seventh grade he had been strong and fast enough to play with the older black kids who competed against white high school and college players in pickup games.
“He was the spitting image of (NFL star) Jim Brown,” remembers George Wallace, who was four years older than Kirkpatrick and quarterback at Second Ward in the early 1960s. “He was sleek and he had size. There was no going after his legs; he was too muscular. In sandlot ball, he couldn’t be stopped.”
What did worry Kirkpatrick was offending his teammates and his neighbors in Grier Town.
“He was afraid people would think he was a sellout,” his sister, Diana Kirkpatrick, says now. “That he wasn’t as black as he should have been during that time and he didn’t represent us as much as he should.”
The Kirkpatrick family’s roots were deep in Grier Town, a black suburban community about 2 miles southeast of Charlotte in what is now called Grier Heights.
It was a low-income neighborhood surrounded by some of Charlotte’s wealthiest areas, including Myers Park, where Kirkpatrick’s great-grandmother worked as a maid for 50 years. On average, families in Grier Town earned half as much as those in Mecklenburg County. About half of Grier Town’s students dropped out before high school.
“We were poor, but people were poorer than us,” Diana says. “People would later say we were underprivileged and we’d say, ‘under-what?’ ”
Families stayed in Grier Town for church and for school and rarely were exposed to life outside their community, she remembers. They didn’t face daily blatant signs of discrimination, like the colored and white drinking fountains at uptown stores.
Instead, families usually shopped in Grier Town – buying food or household items at small local businesses. On Fridays and Saturdays, the community smelled of croaker and perch frying. For 50 cents, you could buy a fish sandwich on white bread with mustard, cole slaw and pinto beans. Kids threw around footballs and shot baskets until it got dark outside, while adults played cards or danced to a jukebox.
Still, Kirkpatrick was confident he could fit in anywhere. He learned from neighbors how to avoid trouble when he walked through white neighborhoods on his way to school or football practice. He walked with a purpose, eyes straight ahead. Grier Town taught him: “Don’t give them a reason.”
His mother, Irma Kirkpatrick, was a church leader known for her gospel singing at Antioch Baptist, built next door to Kirkpatrick’s Skyland Avenue home on land donated by the family. She made sure her son attended midweek choir practice and prayer meetings. Sundays were spent at church services and religious training from morning until night.
Kirkpatrick remembers his mother counseling him “about the way you walk, about standing up straight and looking people in the eye,” he says. She told him: Become a positive influence for your community and ignore racial boundaries.
Her approach, he believes, came from seeing strong, educated men lose hope. His father, Jimmy Kirkpatrick, left the family when Jimmie was in fifth grade. Too many other men of his father’s generation in Grier Town, he remembers, suffered depression or became alcoholics.
Loyal to his team
A day in September 1964 gave Kirkpatrick a dream. A Second Ward coach and mentor took him to Chapel Hill on a gorgeous fall day to watch Michigan State play North Carolina in football. After the game, he met several of Michigan State’s black players, including Bubba Smith, who would become an NFL star.
“It was the first time I had ever seen an integrated game and an integrated audience,” Kirkpatrick remembers. “That day changed my life.”
He returned to Charlotte determined to catch the attention of scouts from major college football programs.
In October, he scored five touchdowns as Second Ward crushed rival West Charlotte 58-0 in the Queen City Classic, the annual game between Charlotte’s largest all-black schools. He finished his junior season as the city’s top rusher and leading scorer. One city high school coach said that Kirkpatrick, at 5-feet-11 and 180 pounds, might be “the best back I have ever seen.”
He had until June to decide whether he would move to a white school as a senior. There were a handful of other Second Ward star athletes facing the same decision.
Tackle Ray Alexander, a year younger than Kirkpatrick, had extra incentive to choose Myers Park: His girlfriend had been assigned there the previous year. But Alexander remembers being called names as he walked through white neighborhoods to football practice. He had no interest in being a pioneer and stayed at Second Ward.
Linebacker Andy Wallace, a cousin of Kirkpatrick’s, had been assigned to Myers Park in 1963 as a sophomore, but lasted only three weeks. Wallace couldn’t afford the book fees. He remembers being embarrassed when a teacher kept calling his name and asking, “When will you have your money?” Finally, he told the school his family had moved and he returned to Second Ward.
Assistant coaches warned Kirkpatrick: The white kids at Myers Park won’t block for you. His teammates heard rumors that he was being offered money to become a Mustang. Some joked that Kirkpatrick was selling out for an alpaca sweater and a pair of khakis.
Second Ward head coach Robert Montgomery, though, told Kirkpatrick that more college coaches would see him at Myers Park.
Irma Kirkpatrick told her son that the move was an opportunity to open a door – for him and other African-Americans. She told him that once people got to know him, they would like him. He could help other blacks get access to better schools.
Kirkpatrick’s sister Diana was more direct. “I said, ‘Screw them; be selfish,’ ” she says. “When was the last time you saw a scout at Second Ward from these good (colleges)? With sports, he could go wherever he wanted from a white school, but not from the school where he was at.”
On June 30, a Charlotte Observer story carried the headline: “Negro Gridder Kirkpatrick To Enroll at Myers Park.”
Kirkpatrick told the Observer: “I’m looking toward my future education – college and my place in life.”
Neb Hayden watched all-American quarterback Rick Arrington play spectacularly at Myers Park in 1964, but the team lacked chemistry and finished with a disappointing record of five wins, four losses and a tie.
The Mustangs’ NFL-style passing offense installed by coach Gus Purcell made stars of quarterbacks. Five of the previous six Mustang quarterbacks made the Shrine Bowl, the all-star game matching the best high school players from North Carolina against South Carolina at Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium.
Now it was Hayden’s turn to take over as Myers Park’s quarterback, but he wanted more than individual honors. At Freedom Park during the summer, he practiced pass patterns with his receivers every day. They had grown up together and played on the same football team since junior high. They knew each other’s moves and abilities. Together, they were a perfect fit.
Kirkpatrick joined the Mustangs’ drills in July. Hayden had watched him in the Queen City Classic and remembers thinking, “He can really make a difference.” He had never seen a runner like Kirkpatrick.
Besides Kirkpatrick, another major college prospect would play for one season at Myers Park.
Fullback and linebacker Mack Tharpe, at 6-feet-1 and 215 pounds, had transferred from his home in Greenwood, S.C., where he was ineligible to play because he was married. He and his wife would have a baby in Charlotte.
“Greenwood was a small town and everybody knew everybody’s business,” Linn Johnson, his wife then, remembers. “I was Peyton Place and everyone knew the banker’s daughter was pregnant.”
A University of South Carolina coach had recommended Tharpe play at Myers Park. Tharpe’s size and talent meant he could lead the defense. At fullback on offense, he could block for Kirkpatrick and also use his bruising straight-ahead style to carry the ball.
Suddenly, the additions of Tharpe and Kirkpatrick transformed the Mustangs from a one-dimensional, pass-oriented team into one that had multiple options.
The two new outsiders would change the team’s dynamics. They were stars and could make the team even better, or they could disrupt the potential of a championship season.
Hayden knew the Mustangs had talent. It would be his job as quarterback and a senior leader to turn this group of stars into a team.
A lot in common
Kirkpatrick walked 4 miles to the first day of practice in August 1965. He already knew many of the top players from summer workouts. That first day offered promise that he had chosen well.
Coaches taught techniques and team strategy. At Second Ward, they emphasized hard hitting and toughness.
Myers Park provided each player clean shorts, a T-shirt, socks and jock strap – all rolled in a white towel. At Second Ward, uniforms went unwashed for a week or longer.
A couple of days later, Hayden saw Kirkpatrick walking to practice and offered him a ride. They became friends in those rides together to and from school. During two-a-day practices, they sometimes drove to Hayden’s house for lunch. Both had strong religious upbringings, sang in the choir and loved football.
The Mustangs’ first game was Sept. 9 at Gastonia’s Hunter Huss. Von Weddington, one of Myers Park’s four black players, remembers seeing fans holding signs with racial comments and hearing jeers. It was the beginning of a season in which opposing players punched or poked Kirkpatrick at the bottom of piles and called him names. At times, he walked back to the huddle with spit dripping off his helmet. Once teammates saw what was happening, they were quick to pull defenders away after Kirkpatrick was tackled.
Kirkpatrick’s family had come to watch his first Myers Park game. But there were few other blacks in the Gastonia stands.
“We were a little scared,” Diana Kirkpatrick says. “We couldn’t be too proud or say anything too loud. It was obvious we were there to see him. We would cheer and we started seeing people looking at us really funny.”
Kirkpatrick was almost tackled the first time he carried the ball, but pitched it back to Hayden, who ran for 8 yards. Overwhelmed that his teammate had bailed him out, Kirkpatrick hugged Hayden before returning to the huddle. Kirkpatrick later ran for a 23-yard touchdown, his first of two, and the Mustangs won 20-0.
He praised his teammates in the newspaper after the win over Hunter Huss, an intentional gesture he would repeat in most interviews. “I got wonderful blocking all night,” Kirkpatrick said. “Man, our defense was just great.”
Bob Cummings, coach of rival Garinger, saw the game and told a reporter, “I wouldn’t mind having that Kirkpatrick.”
Game on the line
More than 10,000 fans streamed into Memorial Stadium on Sept. 17 for the showdown between city powers Garinger and Myers Park.
When Kirkpatrick ran onto the field, he looked up and was stunned. About a quarter of the spectators were black, he remembers.
Garinger led 7-6 with less than a minute to play. Hayden was out with a head injury; coach Purcell would later tell reporters he knew something was wrong when he sent in running plays and Hayden would call a pass.
Myers Park was down to its last chance. Fourth down; 12 seconds left; 28 yards to the goal line. Backup quarterback Randy Short under threw a pass to Kirkpatrick who sprinted back to catch it. He shook off a defender and outran two Garinger players for the winning touchdown. Dozens of kids stormed the field.
“The Second Ward days are over,” Kirkpatrick told a reporter. “I’m a Myers Park man now.”
Some of Kirkpatrick’s Grier Heights neighbors disapproved of that comment. It was more evidence he had abandoned Second Ward.
Some whites apparently weren’t happy, either.
That night, someone threw a brick through the front window of Short’s home in Myers Park.
“It wasn’t until about 10 years later that I asked my parents if they thought it was because I threw the touchdown pass to a black player,” Short says now. “‘That’s what we always thought,’ my dad said.”
‘We are the Mustangs’
The last-second touchdown against Garinger marked the beginning of Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick’s sensational plays that season.
His 36-yard touchdown helped beat North Mecklenburg 14-13. Then, in three October victories, he scored five long touchdowns that demonstrated his versatility – a 91-yard kickoff return, a 92-yard pass reception, a 73-yard punt return and runs of 71 and 56 yards.
A memorable season was unfolding for the Mustangs; Kirkpatrick and Tharpe gave the team added confidence. Tharpe was the formidable center of a defense that held opposing teams to fewer than nine points per game. On offense, Hayden’s summer practices paid off. He was spreading the football around, passing to Woodside, Bill Farthing and David Stanley. And they had another weapon in Kirkpatrick who outran defenders or ran over them. Kirkpatrick was putting up dazzling statistics despite carrying the ball fewer than 10 times a game, about half as many carries as at Second Ward..
Off the field, the Mustangs became closer. Kirkpatrick, who grew up harmonizing gospel songs with his mother and his family, started a new tradition – singing and chanting on the team’s bus rides, “We are the Mustangs, mighty, mighty Mustangs.” He sang harmonies with Hayden and Stanley, whose father owned a local drug store. The three, the school newspaper reported, were kicked out of Shoney’s restaurant one night for singing the Stanley Drug theme song too loudly.
Hayden and a few other teammates came to Kirkpatrick’s house to watch football on television and toss the ball around. Whites almost never came to Grier Town. Kirkpatrick remembers “heads popping out up and down the street” to gawk at his white friends. His mother cleaned and worried about how the visit would go, then realized it was just a bunch of kids watching football.
Kirkpatrick went to parties and restaurants after games with his Myers Park friends. He knew he was treated differently than other African-Americans at the school. That popular athletes like Hayden befriended him went a long way with the rest of the students.
Kirkpatrick worked to fit in. He sang in the choir and the glee club and had small roles in “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma.” When the glee club director wasn’t around, Kirkpatrick would sing “Land of 1,000 Dances” and Motown hits, guiding classmates on where to come in on backup and harmony. Kirkpatrick made it cool to be in the glee club, one student remembers.
He was one of about 100 black students at Myers Park that year. Others didn’t feel as accepted. Weddington, a junior, didn’t hang out with white players after games, although a white teammate, Johnny Elliott, did drive him home after practice. Weddington couldn’t recall racial incidents or fights, but he and other black students often felt like they were “on an island.”
Shrine Bowl nomination
Kirkpatrick scored three touchdowns as Myers Park beat Rocky Mount 27-7 on Nov. 5 to reach eight wins without a loss.
For the first time, however, an opposing coach criticized Kirkpatrick, saying he avoided contact. “He just won’t let anybody tackle him and he’ll head for the sideline or dance around the end zone before he’ll be hit,” Rocky Mount’s Dud Whitley said after Kirkpatrick gained 97 yards on only 12 carries.
Whitley’s comments were a harbinger of criticism Kirkpatrick would hear in the upcoming weeks as the Mustangs pursued an unbeaten season and he drew more individual attention: He can’t take a hit. He can’t block.
No one, though, disparaged his running.
College coaches also were watching Kirkpatrick, who had already scored 14 touchdowns. Wake Forest was looking for an eventual replacement for 1964 star Brian Piccolo and Kirkpatrick was the Deacons’ target.
“You watched about 10 minutes of film on him, shut off the projector and knew there was nothing else you needed to see,” former Wake Forest offensive coordinator Dick Anderson says now. “That’s how it was with all great players. We thought he was the best running back in the state.”
As for Kirkpatrick’s blocking, Anderson says with a player that talented, you just wanted to get him the ball.
There was one game left in the regular season and then the Mustangs would head to the playoffs. Privately, players waited for scholarship offers and anticipated awards. The premier honor: Being selected as one of 33 players to represent North Carolina against South Carolina in the Shrine Bowl, a December game played before thousands in Charlotte.
Each coach could nominate four players, but only two from any school could make the team. Purcell nominated Neb Hayden, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, Mack Tharpe and Harris Woodside. Major colleges had scouted all four.
In the 28 years of the Shrine Bowl, though, there had never been a black player.
Myers Park assistant coach Jack Sink remembers Purcell turning in his nominations and privately thinking Kirkpatrick might not have a chance.