An interracial handshake was a big deal 50 years ago when Mississippi State University played Loyola of Chicago in the NCAA Midwest Regional tournament. Newspapers played up the event. White players from the deep South didn’t take the court against blacks back in the era of segregation. Teams with black players weren’t invited to Mississippi.
As Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett had explained: “If there were a half-dozen Negroes on the team, where are they going to eat? Are they going to want to go to the dance later and want to dance with our girls?”
The game between Mississippi State and Loyola on March 15, 1963 — contested at the height of the civil rights struggle — is widely seen as the beginning of the end of segregation in college sports, according to a New York Times article this week on the death of Leland Mitchell, the star player for Mississippi State.
It was a game that wasn’t supposed to happen. Although all-white Mississippi State had won the right to advance to national play by winning the championship of the Southeastern Conference for the fourth time in five years, political and social pressure appeared likely to keep the team out of the tournament again.
Perhaps because of pride in their powerhouse team or softening racial attitudes, the university president and the board governing state universities agreed to allow the team to compete. Segregationists and their political allies, however, found a judge willing to issue an injunction forbidding the team from leaving the state.
Mitchell had an immediate and sharp reaction. “We need to head out tonight,” he said. “Who all else has a car?”
In a bizarre furtive exodus, the players snuck out of Mississippi, along with their coach and athletic director, and made their way to East Lansing, Mich., to take on Loyola, which had four black starters. In a hard but clean game, Loyola won 61-51.
Mitchell said he didn’t recognize the significance of the team’s action until much later, but surely he knew about the deadly rioting surrounding the admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi just five months earlier. And for sure Mitchell knew the hostility he would face back home from some folks in the community. It would be another two years before a black student, Richard Holmes, was peacefully admitted at Mississippi State.
Today, his alma mater has a black head basketball coach, Rick Ray, and the team is filled with black players.
The 6-foot-4 Mitchell was chosen by the St. Louis Hawks in the second round of the 1963 NBA draft but was cut. He played for the New Orleans Buccaneers of the American Basketball Association in the 1967-68 season.
Mitchell, 72, died at his home in Starkville, Miss., last Saturday, remembered as a footnote in the civil rights struggle. He was a star athlete who did the right thing at a time when it took courage to stand up long-entrenched segregationist policies in his home state.