NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Two men who helped integrate college basketball came back to Vanderbilt University this week to share provocative views on the pace of change, take up matters they rarely dared to address as students, and describe the racism they encountered on their journey — indignities they once endured in silence on the Southern campus.
The return of Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard, part of a candid conversation unfolding this year at Vanderbilt, marks the latest milestone in the school's long, sometimes painful history with race relations.
It had been 50 years since Wallace and Dillard huddled together in the locker room at halftime of a freshman game in Starkville, Mississippi, holding hands and trembling after rival fans spat, yelled slurs and threw things at them on the court.
Like many Southern universities a half-century ago, Vanderbilt had few black students and faculty members. Those who did enroll were excluded from fraternities, sororities, clubs and religious organizations, and often faced segregation at hotels and restaurants when traveling away from campus.
Today, as campuses across the nation see a resurgence of activism and try to come to terms with institutional racism, the wide lawns and stately buildings at Vanderbilt could not be called a hotbed of protest. But the school has more black faculty members and students, who say they're sometimes the only faces of color in a class but have more people to talk to about their experiences.
In recent years, university officials have made clear that diverse opinions are part of Vanderbilt's fabric — a point they made once again by inviting Wallace and Dillard back to campus.
Wallace, the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, had been back to his alma mater occasionally. But Vanderbilt had never invited Dillard to return, in part because his time at the elite private school ended early in his junior year.
Both men say Dillard's activism led to his demotion from the basketball team. As campuses nationwide roiled with unrest, Wallace, who grew up in Nashville, said his teammate from Detroit "didn't know how to be a slave." Dillard, who was president of the Afro-American Student Association, pushed for more black professors and students and for better pay for campus workers.
Things began to thaw for Wallace and Dillard at Vanderbilt after "Strong Inside," a 2014 book by Andrew Maraniss, brought their story back to the forefront. It became required reading for incoming freshmen. An art exhibit on race, sports and Vanderbilt opened last week.
This week, Wallace and Dillard joined Maraniss for the James Lawson lecture, named for a black civil rights icon with his own Vanderbilt story. Lawson was expelled from Vanderbilt's divinity school in 1960 for teaching the art of nonviolent protest. He later was welcomed back as a distinguished professor and alumnus.
Meeting with mostly minority students during a Tuesday luncheon at the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, Wallace called it a shame that current black students still have some of the same concerns he and Dillard did.
Devastated by his demotion, Dillard went home to Detroit. He finished college at Eastern Michigan University, earned a law degree from the University of Michigan, and went on to become a civil rights lawyer. When his turn came to speak, he struggled for composure.
"This is the first time in 50 years that this school has invited me back," he told the students. "I've been invisible for a long time."
Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos extolled Vanderbilt's pioneering role in integrating SEC basketball but said things could have been handled better.
"We always want to be more inclusive, more diverse, to ask hard questions," Zeppos said. "But we can't go forward without understanding our history."
Athletic Director David Williams, who is black and also from Detroit, pushed to invite Dillard back. He noted that Zeppos recently pushed a pay increase through for university staff but said more progress is needed.
During the Lawson lecture, attended by the entire freshman class, Wallace, an American University law professor, encouraged subversive thinking, advising the students to "steal away" to a place where they could form their own opinions.
Dillard, who successfully defended race-based admissions at the University of Michigan in a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, called the diverse assortment of student's faces in Langford Auditorium "a beautiful sight." Fewer than two dozen black students were enrolled when he was at Vanderbilt. Now, about 13 percent of faculty and 17 percent of undergraduate students are minorities.
"If it wasn't for their sacrifices, I wouldn't have it as easy here and couldn't focus on academics and feel comfortable on campus," said Tuzo Mwarumba, a black freshman from Stillwater, Oklahoma. "Things are definitely improving, and I'm glad Vanderbilt has taken the time to focus on inclusion. And I'm grateful that they recognize that there's work here still to be done."
The shared experience of being a minority student at Vanderbilt and the need to not go it alone bridged a 50-year divide. That became clear at the luncheon, when Dillard thanked Wallace for making sure he was invited back.
"Nobody wants to go to war alone," Dillard said. "You always want to have one person with you — so if you don't make it, at least the other person can tell what happened."