Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights

Overview

1967. Two rival football teams. Two legendary coaches. Two talented quarterbacks. Together they broke the color line, revolutionized college sports, and transformed the NFL. Freedman’s dramatic account, highly praised as a contributing part of the movement and a riveting sports story, is now available in paperback.

In September 1967, after three years of landmark civil rights laws and three months of devastating urban riots, the football season began at Louisiana’s Grambling ...

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Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights

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Overview

1967. Two rival football teams. Two legendary coaches. Two talented quarterbacks. Together they broke the color line, revolutionized college sports, and transformed the NFL. Freedman’s dramatic account, highly praised as a contributing part of the movement and a riveting sports story, is now available in paperback.

In September 1967, after three years of landmark civil rights laws and three months of devastating urban riots, the football season began at Louisiana’s Grambling College and Florida A&M. The teams were led by two extraordinary coaches, Eddie Robinson and Jake Gaither, and they featured the best quarterbacks ever at each school, James Harris and Ken Riley.

Breaking the Line brings to life the historic saga of the battle for the 1967 black college championship, culminating in a riveting, excruciatingly close contest. Samuel G. Freedman traces the rise of these four leaders and their teammates as they storm through the season. Together they helped compel the segre­gated colleges of the South to integrate their teams and redefined who could play quarterback in the NFL, who could be a head coach, and who could run a franchise as general manager.

In Breaking the Line, Freedman brilliantly tells this suspenseful story of character and talent as he takes us from locker room to state capitol, from embattled campus to packed stadium. He captures a pivotal time in American sport and society, filling a missing and crucial chapter in the movement for civil rights.

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Editorial Reviews

Isabel Wilkerson
“A powerful narrative of two men, two teams and the stirring battle for dignity and honor during a single tumultuous season in the 1960's South. Freedman masterfully brings to life the burning ambitions, the cleats on scrubgrass and the struggle for victory by these coaches and players not only as black athletes, but as men and as Americans. A riveting story not only of a season but of a country at the crossroads.”
David Maraniss
“When history writes people out, it is our job to write them back in. Samuel G. Freedman has done a marvelous job of that in Breaking the Line, his illuminating account of football and race in the South.”
Diane McWhorter
“Samuel Freedman is one of our most gifted chroniclers of history recent and present. Breaking the Line is as particular in the humanity it portrays as it is important for the conflict it illuminates: an Iliad of college football and social justice.”
William Ferris
Breaking the Line graphically captures the grim terror of Jim Crow worlds in the South that defined the lives of Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson during their coaching careers at Florida A&M and Grambling. With his beautiful prose style, Sam Freedman frames black history and the Civil Rights Movement through the lens of football. Breaking the Line reads like a novel and offers the reader a deep understanding of how football and black history intersect.”
Booklist
“Focusing on these remarkable men, their times, their institutions, and their players, Freedman … has produced an informative book … a solid contribution to sports history.”
The Boston Globe
“Veteran journalist Samuel G. Freedman masterfully sketches the landscape in which Grambling’s Eddie Robinson and Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither recruited and coached powerhouse teams through the intense 1967 season.”
Tampa Tribune
"In a book full of smooth prose and jaunty narrative, author Samuel G. Freedman evokes two of the biggest legends of jazz and big bands to compare two iconic powers of black college football — and their coaches. ... Freedman has written more than a sports book. It is a valuable and necessary work of social history."
The Daily Beast
"Breaking the Line is the story of the competition for the 1967 black college championship, told through the lives of the coaches and quarterbacks who endured prejudice at every turn, all while paving the way for integration of the sport of football at all levels. There is plenty of inspiring politics here, but the real pleasure is in the X’s and O’s: Freedman describes games with the proper mixture of glory and suspense that football can generate even when it’s not being used as a catalyst for social change."
Sports Illustrated
"Call it the year's boldest subtitle. . . . But by tracing the fortunes of Florida A&M and Grambling, Samuel G. Freedman's Breaking the Line succeeds in making a compelling argument that the 1967 season was indeed that significant. It's an instructive book, which is not to say it's not entertaining too. It is."
From the Publisher
“A powerful narrative of two men, two teams and the stirring battle for dignity and honor during a single tumultuous season in the 1960's South. Freedman masterfully brings to life the burning ambitions, the cleats on scrubgrass and the struggle for victory by these coaches and players not only as black athletes, but as men and as Americans. A riveting story not only of a season but of a country at the crossroads.”

“When history writes people out, it is our job to write them back in. Samuel G. Freedman has done a marvelous job of that in Breaking the Line, his illuminating account of football and race in the South.”

“Samuel Freedman is one of our most gifted chroniclers of history recent and present. Breaking the Line is as particular in the humanity it portrays as it is important for the conflict it illuminates: an Iliad of college football and social justice.”

Breaking the Line graphically captures the grim terror of Jim Crow worlds in the South that defined the lives of Jake Gaither and Eddie Robinson during their coaching careers at Florida A&M and Grambling. With his beautiful prose style, Sam Freedman frames black history and the Civil Rights Movement through the lens of football. Breaking the Line reads like a novel and offers the reader a deep understanding of how football and black history intersect.”

Library Journal
Freedman (columnist, New York Times) here looks at the nexus of 20th-century American culture, race, and civil rights through sports as he takes readers back to 1967 when two historically black college football powerhouses, Grambling and Florida A&M (FAMU), played against each other at the Orange Blossom Classic to determine the champion of black college football. He focuses on the coaches—Grambling's Eddie Robinson and FAMU's Jake Gaiter—and their quarterbacks, James Harris and Ken Riley, respectively. Robinson dreamt of Harris breaking the NFL barrier for black quarterbacks, while Gaither wished simply that a black college might play a white one in the Deep South. Ironically, while both coaches spent a lifetime effecting slow but real change by working within the system, they came in for blistering criticism from 1960s activists for not striking a more radical stance. Freedman's subtitle exaggerates: Harris indeed became a pioneer quarterback and executive in the NFL, while Riley transformed into a star pro defensive back, but they were part of a long and slow progression of change. VERDICT This story is expertly reported and engagingly written. Both sports fans and students of 20th-century American studies will be drawn to it.—John Maxymuk, Rutgers Univ. Lib., Camden, NJ
Kirkus Reviews
With campuses and the nation in an uproar over civil rights, two legendary coaches prepared their teams for a football classic. When Texas Western's all-black starting lineup defeated national powerhouse and all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA title basketball game, everyone understood immediately the historic implications. The significance of the Grambling Tigers' narrow victory over the Florida A&M Rattlers in the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic, the de facto championship of black college football, however, emerged only over time. Freedman (Journalism/Columbia Univ.; Letters to a Young Journalist, 2006, etc.) memorably revisits an era when, due to still-widespread segregation, black colleges were at their athletic apogee. Tigers' coach Eddie Robinson and A&M's Jake Gaither had already sent scores of players to the NFL, but, notwithstanding their distinguished tenures, campus militants harshly criticized both for their public silence on civil rights. Innovative coaches, father figures to countless young men, by 1967, they were marginalized, even ridiculed by a new, impatient generation that knew little of each man's struggles and achievements. Neither responded directly to the turmoil of the times, but each harbored a private ambition: Robinson to groom a player sufficiently talented and self-possessed to become a quarterback in the NFL and Gaither to play one game against a predominantly white team, a potentially explosive event for the South. During the summer and fall, they laid the groundwork for breaking both barriers. As he takes us through the season for both teams and recreates their bowl matchup, Freedman mixes in revealing information about the cultures of the schools, their rivalries with other black colleges, sensitive portraits of the coaches and players, and an evocative description of a racial and political climate that Robinson and Gaither, each working quietly, did so much to alter. Much more than just a sports book.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439189788
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 8/12/2014
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.37 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Samuel G. Freedman is a columnist for The New York Times and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of six acclaimed books, four of which have been New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Freedman also has written frequently for USA TODAY, New York magazine, Rolling Stone, The Jerusalem Post, Tablet, The Forward, and Salon.com. He lives in Manhattan with his fiance and his children.

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