Myers Park

Breaking Through: A game that moved off the field and into court (Part 2)

Second in a three-part series

As a kid, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick dreamed of playing in the Shrine Bowl.

It was the biggest high school football game of the year. More than 14,000 people jammed Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium every December to watch the contest between the best players in North Carolina and South Carolina.

No black player had ever been selected for the bowl since its inception in 1937. But that didn’t discourage Kirkpatrick. When the stadium was empty, he and his friends would sneak in, sit in the stands and pretend they were stars. “We had great imaginations,” Kirkpatrick remembers.

In 1965, he had made a highly publicized decision to move from all-black Second Ward High School to predominantly white Myers Park High for his senior season. He would score 19 touchdowns for the Mustangs, a single-season school record that still stands. He had a nearly unstoppable combination of power, speed and agility.

His dream of making the Shrine Bowl seemed within reach when Mustangs coach Gus Purcell nominated him.

On Nov. 9, Myers Park Principal Laird Lewis asked Kirkpatrick to come to his office.

You didn’t make the Shrine Bowl. We did all we could, Kirkpatrick recalls him saying.

Only two players from each school could make the team, and the Shrine Bowl coaches had chosen Myers Park quarterback Neb Hayden and linebacker-fullback Mack Tharpe.

Within hours, reporters were at practice asking questions.

“I would have liked to be on the team. But I’m not disappointed. I can’t be, not when they took boys like Neb and Mack,” Kirkpatrick told a Charlotte Observer reporter. “The Shrine Bowl coaches did the best they could.”

Hayden said that day, “I kinda felt guilty. ... Jimmie deserved it.”

The Charlotte News’ afternoon headline asked, “Why not Jim Kirkpatrick?”

For 10 days, debate raged in news columns and over dinner tables. Was this race or just football?

Julius Chambers, a young civil rights attorney, knew his answer. He roused black congregations for weeknight meetings at churches around the city and told them why they should care about a football game.

‘Strictly a runner’

Each coach could nominate up to four players, although only two from each school could make the Shrine Bowl team. Myers Park’s Purcell worried Kirkpatrick would be rejected because of race, so he submitted four names to ensure other deserving players had a chance, assistant coach Jack Sink recalls.

When the team was announced on Nov. 9, North Carolina Shrine Bowl coach Clyde Walker of Raleigh’s Broughton High expected to be criticized. Every year, angry fans thought their player deserved to be chosen. Mainly, though, Walker wanted to win. North Carolina had lost five of the past six bowls, and he wanted players he thought gave him the best chance.

Walker explained why Kirkpatrick didn’t make the team to Charlotte News sports editor Ron Green: Hayden is the best quarterback in the state. Tharpe is the best linebacker and also a strong blocking fullback, a key position in Walker’s running game.

Kirkpatrick’s race, Walker said, was never considered.

“I’m not that stupid,” he said. “He’s a fine runner and has been a big asset to Myers Park. But he’s strictly a runner. It is generally accepted among local coaches that Kirkpatrick is possibly the best runner ever produced in Charlotte. ... However he has been rated mediocre as a blocker.”

Kirkpatrick had already heard criticism that he couldn’t handle contact. Now it was blocking. But Hayden, the Myers Park quarterback, considered Kirkpatrick a good blocker who protected him on pass plays. Later, in college, Kirkpatrick would make the starting lineup especially for his blocking.

Charlotte writer Harry Golden, a civil rights advocate who published The Carolina Israelite, wrote to The Charlotte News: “I’ve read the editorials about how race did not figure in the selection of the football players for the Shrine Bowl game. Race never figures in anything. Is that not so?

“... In the case of this Negro, they say he scores all the points but he ain’t a good blocker.... By all means, let us continue to walk through the cemetery singing to ourselves, ‘Race had nothing to do with it.’ ”

Trying to escape race

Diana Kirkpatrick wasn’t surprised when her brother was left off the Shrine Bowl team. She and others in their all-black Grier Town neighborhood saw the decision as just another closed door.

Privately, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick felt he should have made the team. But he wanted to rush past the disappointment and focus on another goal. The Mustangs were still unbeaten, and he loved playing football at Myers Park. He saw a perfect season within reach.

Before the Shrine Bowl selections, he had worried that no matter what happened, race would loom over him: If I make the team, it will be because I’m black; if I don’t make the team, it will be because I’m black.

It’s about football, he recalls thinking, don’t make it about race.

But civil rights leaders saw injustice. Julius Chambers filed a restraining order to stop the Shrine Bowl, charging that the team’s selection was on a “purely racially discriminatory basis.”

Shrine Bowl Board of Governors Chairman Clarence Beeson responded: “It is unfortunate that threats have been made that we do not believe are in the best interest of good race relationships.” After all, he said, black high school bands already are part of the pageantry.

“We wish that all who are so vocal about the selection of players would assume the same fine attitude and understanding that Jimmie Kirkpatrick has stated to the press.”

A great opportunity

Chambers opened his one-man office in Charlotte in 1964 as an attorney with the Legal Defense Fund and also to work with state NAACP president Kelly Alexander.

Chambers, then 29, had graduated at the top of his University of North Carolina Law School class and was the first black editor-in-chief of the Law Review. His firm was a national leader in civil rights cases.

In January 1965, Chambers had filed a suit – Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education – that would become a hallmark in school desegregation cases. Days later, Chambers’ car was bombed.

In June, Judge Braxton Craven ruled in favor of the school board, saying there had been steady progress toward desegregating schools. The case would resurface in 1969, when Judge James McMillan ordered Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools to desegregate through busing.

Chambers was part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s network of Southern lawyers who were encouraged to use the courts to fight for equal rights. In 1965, Chambers was involved in more than 50 desegregation suits.

In Kirkpatrick, Chambers saw an opportunity that transcended even the Swann suit.

“Sports affected people all over the place,” he says. “When you are talking about integrating schools, we saw a great opportunity to challenge what was going on with the exclusion of black athletes in sports.”

Now 76, Chambers says the Shrine Bowl lawsuit was one of his most important civil rights cases.

“We were able to reach a lot of parents, teachers, principals, who played very important roles in black and white communities,” he says now.

Chambers, Alexander and others told black audiences that the suit was not just about football. It was ultimately related to equal jobs, equal pay and justice.

“We knew exclusions like this were affecting everything we wanted to do in life,” Chambers says now.

The Shrine Bowl represented an opportunity to prove the state was involved in discrimination. The lawsuit, filed Nov. 11 on behalf of 14 African-American families, included some who had been plaintiffs in the Swann case. The suit named the Charlotte Parks and Recreation Commission, which rented the stadium to the Shrine Bowl, and the Mecklenburg Board of Education.

Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick was not named. He remembers seeing his name in the newspaper daily for almost two weeks as the person behind the suit. No one consulted him, he remembers, or kept him informed.

“All I knew was that I wasn’t going to play,” he says now.

He was pleased, though, that black leaders were fighting for justice in his name, especially after his black teammates and neighbors had once called him a sellout.

He received a few letters of encouragement. One, from a man he didn’t know, began, “I too, am an American Negro” and complimented him on his grace.

On Nov. 19, 10 days after the Shrine Bowl team was announced, Judge Craven allowed the game to be played, but ordered the Shriners to appear in court March 1 with a new player-selection policy.

Craven’s message: Integrate the game or the court will.

A noise, a flash

Craven ruled on Friday morning. That night, Kirkpatrick scored three touchdowns as Myers Park beat Asheville Edwards 46-21 in the playoffs.

Just after 2 a.m. Monday morning, 17-year-old Kelly Alexander Jr., heard a boom outside his bedroom that sounded like “distant thunder.”

“Then there was a flash and I remember thinking that maybe lightning had hit the front porch,” he remembers. “The explosion shattered glass and blasted out in a pattern that went over us. The fortuitous combination of being half asleep, thinking the sound I heard was just thunder, I didn’t move to look out the window. That probably saved my life.”

Beginning at 2:15 a.m. and continuing to 2:30, bombs exploded at houses of four prominent Charlotte civil rights leaders. State NAACP president Kelly Alexander Sr., city council member Fred Alexander, Dr. Reginald Hawkins and Chambers all were involved in the Shrine Bowl suit.

Chambers was home in bed with his wife, Vivian, when dynamite blew out a window in the front bedroom.

“I was angry,” Chambers remembers. “I didn’t know who did it. I didn’t know why they would do it. I had my ideas. We knew getting with the Shrine Bowl was going to cause a lot of problems. And it did.”

Through the years, some news accounts have linked the bombings to the Swann lawsuit. The same four civil rights leaders were involved in both the Swann and Shrine Bowl cases. But Chambers believes the bombings were about the pending integration of the game. The threats, in letters and phone calls, started only after Chambers filed the bowl lawsuit.

The New York Times wrote: “Night riders bombed the homes of four Negro civil rights leaders here early today and shattered the pride of this racially progressive city.” Kelly Alexander Sr. speculated in that story that the bombers “might have been resentful” because of the Shrine Bowl lawsuit.

“Football mania was probable,” Jet Magazine reported.

“This was a strike against changing the status quo,” says Alexander Jr., now a member of the N.C. House of Representatives. “They did not want desegregated schools. And I suspect they definitely did not want the premier whites-only football event to be integrated.”

He remembers his family taking phone calls the next day, more from “white folks than black folks,” people saying that though they might not be of like minds, they were appalled at the violence.

“It brought the community together in a way it hadn’t been together before,” Alexander Jr. says. “If the intent of the bombing was to put a stop to something, then the intent failed because change was accelerated. Not only in an abstract sense, but the willingness from all sides of the community to work for peaceful change.”

Within 24 hours, 150 bricklayers and carpenters began repairing the damaged homes. The Observer raised more than $8,000 from $1 and $5 donations from readers as a reward for information leading to the bombers’ arrests. A protest gathering at Ovens Auditorium drew 2,500 people and was televised. Within two weeks, more than 100 black and white Charlotte ministers would march together.

Author Harry Golden reported to police abusive phone calls and a suspicious car at his house that sped away when he walked outside. “A very raw nerve has been touched – football. Some of these bastards would even let you marry their sister if you promise never to touch – football.”

Police interviewed more than 50 people, including Ku Klux Klan members. They made no arrests; the cases remain unsolved.

‘Greatest I have seen’

Kirkpatrick remembers being afraid for the first time since he left Second Ward. The bombings were seven miles from Grier Town, but close to him personally.

“My family was concerned; the community was concerned,” Kirkpatrick says now. “It was very clear to us that there was a connection there (to the Shrine Bowl case). ... I remember people telling me to really be aware.”

Myers Park was one game away from a perfect season. In the victory over Asheville a week earlier, a college coach who watched Kirkpatrick score three touchdowns said he was doing things no human could.

Purcell told reporters: “Kirkpatrick is the greatest I have ever seen. I’ve said that before. But I want to stress it more this time and I can’t think of a comparison good enough to do it.”

On Friday, Nov. 26, four days after the bombings, Kirkpatrick scored his 19th touchdown on a 15-yard run as Myers Park beat Garinger 27-6. The Mustangs were Western Regional 4A champions a perfect 11-0.

Eight days later, the Shrine Bowl was played at Memorial Stadium. Kirkpatrick didn’t attend.

“I had moved on. ... Things were different,” he remembers. “My season was over. They (the Shrine Bowl) didn’t want me. ... I sure wasn’t going to sneak in. Then people would say, ‘There’s Jimmie Kirkpatrick.’ ”

His Myers Park teammates Hayden and Tharpe would star in the game, but North Carolina would lose 31-27. Hayden set a bowl record with four touchdown passes. Tharpe had 20 tackles on defense. He never played fullback in the game, he and Hayden remember, though that was one reason the coach had picked Tharpe over Kirkpatrick.

Individual awards were announced: Hayden and Kirkpatrick were named to the Athlete Magazine All-America team. And the Thom McAn MVP plaque, distinctive with its bronzed cleats, was awarded to Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, naming him the best high school football player in Charlotte.

Shrine Bowl integrates

Chambers’ lawsuit against the Charlotte Parks and Recreation Commission and the Mecklenburg Board of Education was settled in February 1966 with the Shrine Bowl agreeing to include the N.C. Negro High School Athletic Association schools.

Shrine Bowl officials never conceded that race was involved in Kirkpatrick’s exclusion. They said the team selection was left to the coaches.

Red Wilson, the 1966 North Carolina team coach, said he was considering three black players, but a Shrine Bowl official warned him: Remember, we have two players to a hotel room. Wilson said he responded: My son is on the team. He will room with a black player if we have an uneven number.

Wilson eventually named two African-Americans to the team – defensive lineman Titus Ivory of West Charlotte, and Tommy Love, a running back from Sylva-Webster. “I was lucky to be the first coach with black players on the Shrine Bowl team,” he said. “But they should have been playing years before.”

After losing six of the seven previous games, North Carolina won 34-14. Love gained 147 yards, scored two touchdowns and was named the co-outstanding back.

The following year, the South Carolina team included blacks for the first time: Eau Claire’s Theodore Harrison and Lower Richland’s Ernest Jackson.

Kirkpatrick didn’t learn that Ivory and Love had integrated the Shrine Bowl until he came home in 1966 for Thanksgiving from Purdue University, where he attended on a football scholarship. Kirkpatrick had played against Ivory in the Queen City Classic game between Second Ward High School and West Charlotte. He also knew Love from a recruiting visit.

“I did feel pride,” Kirkpatrick remembers. “I talked with Titus several times and he made it clear that he made the Shrine Bowl because of the things I went through.”

That was rare closure for Kirkpatrick. He and his Myers Park teammates never talked about how a group of black kids and white kids became a championship team while race divided the rest of the city.

Decades later, he often wondered: What do the other players recall about that 1965 season? Did it impact their lives as it did mine?

So in January 2013, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick returned to Charlotte to find out.

Researcher Maria David contributed.

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