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Stateside Podcast: Michigan and Georgia football’s history of racial conflict

Michigan's running back (No. 43), one of their two Black starters, carries the ball in a 1957 game against Georgia.
Image courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library
Michigan's running back (No. 43), one of their two Black starters, carries the ball in a 1957 game against Georgia.

Ahead of University of Michigan’s College Football Playoff clash against University of Georgia, journalist and documentarian Buddy Moorehouse joined Stateside to look back on previous matchups between the two states — a history embroiled with racial conflict.

The upcoming playoff game will mark the fourth time Michigan has been pitted against a Georgia football team. The first came in 1934, against Georgia Tech.

“They refused to even play the game if we played an African-American player,” Moorehouse said. Michigan, who went on to win 9-2, bowed to Georgia Tech’s racist request and benched their their star player, Willis Ward.

Michigan’s first game against the University of Georgia came in segregation-era 1957. A year prior, Georgia legislators passed an egregious law even by Jim Crow standards.

“In researching this story, it was much worse than even I had imagined in terms of some of the laws that they were passing back then,” said Moorehouse.

“What had happened is, in 1956, a man named Leon Butts Jr., 27-year-old from Georgia, was elected to the state Senate. And the first bill that he introduced when he was elected was a bill that would ban race mixing in all social activities. And that included all sporting events, dances, concerts.”

The law garnered national attention, all the way up to Lansing. A trio of Michigan politicians — Sen. Basil W. Brown, Sen. John B. Swainson and Rep. George Edwards — took particular notice.

“They just thought that that was outrageous, that Michigan would — in essence — be putting their stamp of approval, in their opinion, on Georgia's racist legislation by playing them in a football game.”

Brown, Swainson, and Edwards organized a meeting with U-M Athletic Director Fritz Crisler in hopes to get the game cancelled. They also enlisted the help of Charles Diggs, a Black congressman from Detroit. Diggs, who coincidentally ran for reelection against the former Michigan football star, Ward, was very familiar with the context surrounding the matchup.

“They met for about 40 minutes with Fritz Crisler and the Michigan Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics, and, from what I've read, it was a very heated meeting,” Moorehouse said.

“Crisler's stance was that he said we would never let anyone dictate who we can or can't play in the game. He contacted [Georgia coach] Wally Butts, and he just said, 'I just want to make sure that you're not going to try to do any of this stuff that happened back in 1934.'"

Wally Butts (no relation to Sen. Leon Butts) assured Crisler that he would not try and dictate which Michigan players were allowed on the field. Ultimately, the game remained in place, and Michigan won by a score of 26-0.

Still, as recently as 2013, Georgia has honored the late Sen. Butts for his work in their state’s politics.

"A resolution that honored Leon Butts, the most racist legislator I can imagine," said Moorehouse. "It's like if you had just, you know, Googled him or gone back and looked up history, who this person really was... It was absolutely remarkable to me that Georgia would, upon his his death just a few years ago, they would honor somebody like that."

Despite this, the tide has seemingly shifted in Georgia's sports arena.

“You don't see that kind of that kind of 'Jim Crow-ism,' certainly in college athletics, the way you did just, you know, 60, 70 years ago,” Moorehouse said. "That, I think is a positive step. But but we still have a long way to go to really get to where we need to be."

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Lucas is a senior at Michigan State University studying professional and public writing. He has previously worked as a co-director of editing for VIM, an MSU fashion magazine. An aspiring music journalist, Lucas dreams of getting paid to go to concerts. He is also a screenwriter. When he’s not working, he can be found walking around aimlessly, listening to either punk rock or Kacey Musgraves.
Erin Allen comes to Michigan Radio as a new producer for the station’s Stateside show. She is an experienced communicator driven by her curiosity about stories of people.