Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How A Young Dean Smith Challenged Segregation

Photo Credit: WayTru
I am currently reading John Feinstein's 2006 book, Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four.  With a special emphasis on the 2005 Final Four that featured North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan State, and Louisville, Feinstein also shares some insights into the most well-known teams of the NCAA tournament and the history of the event that has become commonly known as "March Madness."

As a product of Big Ten country, I wish Feinstein didn't focus so much on the ACC in his book, but I was moved by one story about Dean Smith, the legendary North Carolina coach. Back when Smith was just an assistant coach to Frank McGuire at Carolina in the late 1950's, he took an important stand in regard to race relations in Chapel Hill. Feinstein tells the story:
"Not long after he [Smith] arrived in Chapel Hill, he began attending the Binkley Baptist Church and became friendly with the pastor there, Dr. Robert Seymour. It was Seymour who pointed out to him that Chapel Hill's restaurants were segregated and that it might take someone who had the clout of the North Carolina basketball program to put an end to that tradition.

Soon after, Smith walked into a well-known local restaurant with a member of the church who happened to be black. The two men sat down at a table, daring the restaurant's management to say something. No one said anything. Everyone knew that Smith was Frank McGuire's assistant coach. That was the beginning of the end of segregation in Chapel Hill restaurants.

Twenty-three years later, Seymour told that story to a reporter whom Smith had reluctantly agreed to cooperate with on a newspaper profile. "I wish you'd write about the players and not me," he had said when first approached. He finally agreed because the reporter told him he had been assigned to write the story with or without Smith's cooperation. When the reporter asked Smith about the restaurant story, Smith was clearly perturbed. "Who told you that story?" he asked.

When he heard that it was Seymour, he shook his head. "I wish he hadn't done that." "Why?" he was asked. "Aren't you proud of what you did?" "I did what I thought was the right thing," Smith said. "I don't think you should take bows in life for doing the right thing. You should just do it."
There are opportunities every day where each one of us has the chance to do the right thing. It could be something that is seemingly insignificant like holding the door open for an elderly woman or offering a kind word to a frazzled waitress. Or, like Coach Smith, it could be challenging an entrenched system of injustice. Whatever it may be, as Da Mayor said in Spike Lee's classic film "Do the Right Thing": "Doctor, always do the right thing."

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