High school football, race and a bid to break through

gschwab@charlotteobserver.com and dscott@charlotteobserver.comMarch 9, 2013 

As a kid, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick dreamed of playing in the Shrine Bowl.

It was the biggest high school football game of the year. More than 14,000 people jammed Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium every December to watch the contest between the best players in North Carolina and South Carolina.

No black player had ever been selected for the bowl since its inception in 1937. But that didn’t discourage Kirkpatrick. When the stadium was empty, he and his friends would sneak in, sit in the stands and pretend they were stars. “We had great imaginations,” Kirkpatrick remembers.

In 1965, he made a highly publicized decision to move from all-black Second Ward High School to predominantly white Myers Park High for his senior season. Kirkpatrick was a spectacular running back. At Myers Park, he knew, his opportunity for a scholarship with a major college football program increased, as did his chance of making the Shrine Bowl.

Kirkpatrick’s decision would change his life, but it would change Charlotte, too. Racial turbulence would soon descend on the city, sweeping Kirkpatrick into the center of one of Charlotte’s most volatile civil rights cases, played out at the passionate intersection of football and race. As the case unfolded, night riders would bomb the homes of four civil rights leaders, shattering, as The New York Times would write, “the pride of this racially progressive city.”

Now 64 and a retired educator, Kirkpatrick has for years told his story to young people in Oregon. But not in Charlotte, where only his family and former teammates know what he endured 47 years ago. He talks about being 16 and choosing to straddle two worlds.

Know who you are, Kirkpatrick says. Then when you’re confronted with the unknown, you’re ready.

Eyes straight ahead

Kirkpatrick grew up in Grier Town, a black suburban community about 2 miles southeast of Charlotte, now called Grier Heights. It was a low-income neighborhood surrounded by some of the city’s wealthiest areas, including Myers Park, where Kirkpatrick’s great-grandmother worked as a maid for 50 years.

Kirkpatrick, though, was confident he could fit in anywhere. He learned from neighbors how to avoid trouble when he walked through white neighborhoods on his way to school or football practice. He walked with a purpose, eyes straight ahead. Grier Town taught him: “Don’t give them a reason.”

His mother, Irma Kirkpatrick, was a church leader known for her gospel singing. She made sure her son attended midweek choir practice and prayer meetings. Sundays were spent at church services and religious training from morning until night. She told him: Become a positive influence for your community and ignore racial boundaries.

A visit to Chapel Hill in September 1964 gave Kirkpatrick a dream. A Second Ward High coach and mentor took him to see Michigan State play North Carolina. After the game, he met several of Michigan State’s black players, including Bubba Smith, who would become an NFL star. “It was the first time I had ever seen an integrated game and an integrated audience,” Kirkpatrick remembers. “That day changed my life.”

As a junior at Second Ward that year, he scored five touchdowns in one game, averaged over 10 yards per carry and became the first African-American to make the Charlotte Observer all-county team.

Then, a school boundary change gave Kirkpatrick a choice: Stay at Second Ward or go to Myers Park, where more college scouts would see him play. But he didn’t want to offend his friends and neighbors by leaving. “He was afraid people would think he was a sellout,” his sister, Diana Kirkpatrick, says now.

Second Ward assistant coaches warned Kirkpatrick: The white kids at Myers Park won’t block for you.

Irma Kirkpatrick, though, told her son that the move was an opportunity to open a door – for him and other African-Americans. She told him that once people got to know him, they would like him. He could help other blacks get access to better schools.

On June 30, 1965, a Charlotte Observer story carried the headline: “Negro Gridder Kirkpatrick To Enroll at Myers Park.” Kirkpatrick told the Observer: “I’m looking toward my future education – college and my place in life.”

Game on the line

The Mustangs’ first game was Sept. 9, 1965 at Gastonia’s Hunter Huss. It was the beginning of a season in which opposing players punched or poked Kirkpatrick at the bottom of piles and called him names. At times, he walked back to the huddle with spit dripping off his helmet. Once teammates saw what was happening, they were quick to pull defenders away after Kirkpatrick was tackled. He scored two touchdowns that day and Myers Park won 20-0.

The following week, rival Garinger led the Mustangs 7-6 with less than a minute to play. Star quarterback Neb Hayden was out with a head injury. Myers Park was down to its last chance. Fourth down; 12 seconds left; 28 yards to the goal line. Backup quarterback Randy Short under threw a pass to Kirkpatrick who sprinted back to catch it. He shook off a defender and outran two Garinger players for the winning touchdown.

That night, someone threw a brick through the front window of Short’s home in Myers Park. “It wasn’t until about 10 years later that I asked my parents if they thought it was because I threw the touchdown pass to a black player,” Short says now. “ ‘That’s what we always thought,’ my dad said.”

The last-second touchdown against Garinger marked the beginning of Kirkpatrick’s sensational plays that season. His 36-yard touchdown helped beat North Mecklenburg 14-13. Then, in three October victories, he scored five long touchdowns that demonstrated his versatility – a 91-yard kickoff return, a 92-yard pass reception, a 73-yard punt return and runs of 71 and 56 yards.

Kirkpatrick and another new player – Mack Tharpe – gave the Mustangs added confidence. Tharpe, at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, had transferred from his home in Greenwood, S.C., where he was ineligible to play because he was married. He and his wife would have a baby in Charlotte. Tharpe was the formidable center of a defense that held opposing teams to fewer than nine points per game. Kirkpatrick, 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, was putting up dazzling statistics despite carrying the ball fewer than 10 times a game. And Hayden was the latest to benefit from coach Gus Purcell’s NFL-style passing attack – five of his past six quarterbacks had made the Shrine Bowl.

Off the field, the Mustangs became closer. Kirkpatrick, who grew up harmonizing gospel songs with his mother and his family, started a new tradition – singing and chanting on the team’s bus rides, “We are the Mustangs, mighty, mighty Mustangs.” They developed camaraderie and confidence.

Hayden and a few other teammates came to Kirkpatrick’s house to watch football on television and toss the ball around. Kirkpatrick remembers “heads popping out up and down the street,” to gawk at his white friends. His mother cleaned and worried about how the visit would go, then realized it was just a bunch of kids watching football.

Kirkpatrick scored three touchdowns as Myers Park beat Rocky Mount 27-7 on Nov. 5 to reach eight wins without a loss. For the first time, however, an opposing coach criticized Kirkpatrick, saying he avoided contact. “He just won’t let anybody tackle him and he’ll head for the sideline or dance around the end zone before he’ll be hit,” Rocky Mount’s Dud Whitley said after Kirkpatrick gained 97 yards on only 12 carries.

College coaches also were watching Kirkpatrick. Wake Forest was looking for an eventual replacement for 1964 star Brian Piccolo and Kirkpatrick was its top target. “You watched about 10 minutes of film on him, shut off the projector and knew there was nothing else you needed to see,” former Wake Forest offensive coordinator Dick Anderson says now. “We thought (Kirkpatrick) was the best running back in the state.”

There was one game left in the regular season and then the Mustangs would head to the playoffs. But there was also the Shrine Bowl. Each coach could nominate four players, but only two from any school could make the team. Purcell nominated Hayden, Kirkpatrick, Tharpe and star wide receiver Harris Woodside. Major colleges had scouted all four.

In the 28 years of the Shrine Bowl, there had never been a black player. Myers Park assistant coach Jack Sink remembers Purcell turning in his nominations and privately thinking Kirkpatrick might not have a chance.

‘Strictly a runner’

On Nov. 9, Myers Park principal Laird Lewis asked Kirkpatrick to come to his office.

You didn’t make the Shrine Bowl. We did all we could, Kirkpatrick recalls him saying.

The Shrine Bowl coaches had chosen Hayden and Tharpe. Within hours, reporters were at practice asking questions. “I would have liked to be on the team. But I’m not disappointed. I can’t be, not when they took boys like Neb and Mack,” Kirkpatrick told a Charlotte Observer reporter. “The Shrine Bowl coaches did the best they could.”

Hayden said that day, “Jimmie deserved it.”

The Charlotte News’ afternoon headline asked, “Why not Jim Kirkpatrick?” For 10 days, debate raged in news columns and over dinner tables. Was this race or just football?

When the team was announced on Nov. 9, North Carolina Shrine Bowl coach Clyde Walker of Raleigh’s Broughton High expected to be criticized. Every year, angry fans thought their player deserved to be chosen. Mainly, though, Walker wanted to win. North Carolina had lost five of the past six bowls, and he wanted players he thought gave him the best chance.

Walker, who would later become associate athletics director at North Carolina and athletics director at Kansas and UNC Charlotte, explained why Kirkpatrick didn’t make the team to the Charlotte News: Hayden is the best quarterback in the state. Tharpe is the best linebacker and also a strong blocking fullback, a key position in Walker’s running game.

Kirkpatrick’s race, Walker said, was never considered.

“I’m not that stupid,” he said. “He’s a fine runner and has been a big asset to Myers Park. But he’s strictly a runner. It is generally accepted among local coaches that Kirkpatrick is possibly the best runner ever produced in Charlotte. ... However he has been rated mediocre as a blocker.”

Hayden considered Kirkpatrick a good blocker who protected him on pass plays. Later, in college, Kirkpatrick would make the starting lineup especially for his blocking.

Charlotte writer Harry Golden, a civil rights advocate who published The Carolina Israelite, wrote to The Charlotte News: “I’ve read the editorials about how race did not figure in the selection of the football players for the Shrine Bowl game. Race never figures in anything. Is that not so?

“... In the case of this Negro, they say he scores all the points but he ain’t a good blocker... . By all means, let us continue to walk through the cemetery singing to ourselves, ‘Race had nothing to do with it.’ ”

Trying to escape race

Diana Kirkpatrick wasn’t surprised when her brother was left off the Shrine Bowl team. She and others in their all-black Grier Town neighborhood saw the decision as just another closed door.

Privately, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick felt he should have made the team. But he wanted to rush past the disappointment and focus on another goal. The Mustangs were still unbeaten, and he loved playing football at Myers Park. He saw a perfect season within reach.

Before the Shrine Bowl selection, he had worried that no matter what happened, race would loom over him: If I make the team, it will be because I’m black; if I don’t make the team, it will be because I’m black.

It’s about football, he recalls thinking. Don’t make it about race.

But civil rights leaders saw injustice. Julius Chambers filed a restraining order to stop the Shrine Bowl, charging that the team’s selection was on a “purely racially discriminatory basis.”

Chambers had opened his one-man office in Charlotte in 1964 as an attorney with the Legal Defense Fund and also to work with state NAACP president Kelly Alexander. Chambers, then 29, had graduated at the top of his University of North Carolina Law School class and was the first black editor-in-chief of the Law Review. His firm was a national leader in civil rights cases.

In January 1965, Chambers had filed a suit – Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education – that would become a hallmark in school desegregation cases. Days later, Chambers’ car was bombed.

In June, Judge Braxton Craven ruled in favor of the school board, saying there had been steady progress toward desegregating schools. The case would resurface in 1969, when Judge James McMillan ordered Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools to desegregate through busing.

Chambers was part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s network of Southern lawyers who were encouraged to use the courts to fight for equal rights. In 1965, Chambers was involved in more than 50 desegregation suits. In Kirkpatrick, Chambers saw an opportunity that transcended even the Swann suit.

“Sports affected people all over the place,” Chambers says. “When you are talking about integrating schools, We saw a great opportunity to challenge what was going on with the exclusion of black athletes in sports.”

Now 76, Chambers says the Shrine Bowl lawsuit was one of his most important civil rights cases. Chambers, Alexander and others told black audiences at church meetings across Charlotte that the suit was not just about football. It was ultimately related to equal jobs, equal pay and justice.

“We knew exclusions like this were affecting everything we wanted to do in life,” Chambers says now.

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 11 on behalf of 14 African-American families, included some who had been plaintiffs in the Swann case. The suit named the Charlotte Parks and Recreation Commission, which rented the stadium to the Shrine Bowl, and the Mecklenburg Board of Education.

Kirkpatrick was not named. He remembers seeing his name in the newspaper daily for almost two weeks as the person behind the suit. He was pleased that black leaders were fighting for justice in his name, especially after his black teammates and neighbors had once called him a sellout.

On Nov. 19, 1965, 10 days after the Shrine Bowl team was announced, Judge Craven ruled the game could be played, but ordered the Shriners to appear in court March 1, 1966 with a new player-selection policy. Craven’s message: Integrate the game or the court will.

‘Distant thunder’

Craven ruled on Friday morning. That night, Kirkpatrick scored three touchdowns as Myers Park beat Asheville Lee Edwards 46-21 in the playoffs.

Just after 2 a.m. Monday morning, 17-year-old Kelly Alexander Jr., heard a boom outside his bedroom that sounded like “distant thunder.” Beginning at 2:15 a.m. and continuing to 2:30, bombs exploded at houses of four prominent Charlotte civil rights leaders. State NAACP president Kelly Alexander Sr., city council member Fred Alexander, Dr. Reginald Hawkins and Chambers all were involved in the Shrine Bowl suit. No one was injured.

Through the years, some news accounts have linked the bombings to the Swann lawsuit. The same four civil rights leaders were involved in both the Swann and Shrine Bowl cases. But Chambers believes the bombings were about the pending integration of the game. The threats, in letters and phone calls, started only after Chambers filed the bowl lawsuit.

The New York Times wrote: “Night riders bombed the homes of four Negro civil rights leaders here early today and shattered the pride of this racially progressive city.” Kelly Alexander Sr. speculated in that story that the bombers “might have been resentful,” because of the Shrine Bowl lawsuit.

Within 24 hours, 150 bricklayers and carpenters began repairing the damaged homes. Within two weeks, more than 100 black and white Charlotte ministers would march together.

Police interviewed more than 50 people, including Ku Klux Klan members. They made no arrests; the cases remain unsolved.

Integrated game

On Friday, Nov. 26, four days after the bombings, Kirkpatrick scored on a 15-yard run as Myers Park beat Garinger 27-6. The Mustangs were Western Regional 4A champions, a perfect 11-0. That season, Durham, led by junior quarterback Brad Evans, also finished undefeated and won the Eastern Regional. But in 1965 and ’66 the 4A schools did not play a state championship game and the two schools never met.

Eight days later, Myers Park teammates Hayden and Tharpe would star in the Shrine Bowl, but North Carolina would lose 31-27. Hayden set a bowl record with four touchdown passes. Tharpe had 20 tackles on defense. He never played fullback in the game, he and Hayden remember, though that was one reason the coach had picked Tharpe over Kirkpatrick.

Individual awards were announced: Hayden and Kirkpatrick were named to the Athlete Magazine All-America team. And the Thom McAn MVP plaque was awarded to Kirkpatrick, naming him the best high school football player in Charlotte.

Chambers’ lawsuit against the Charlotte Parks and Recreation Commission and the Mecklenburg Board of Education was settled in February 1966 with the Shrine Bowl agreeing to include the N.C. Negro High School Athletic Association schools.

Shrine Bowl officials never conceded that race was involved in Kirkpatrick’s exclusion. They said the team selection was always left to the coaches.

Red Wilson, the 1966 North Carolina team coach who would go on to coach at Duke, said he was considering three black players, but a Shrine Bowl official warned him: Remember, we have two players to a hotel room. Wilson said he responded: My son is on the team. He will room with a black player if we have an uneven number.

Wilson eventually selected two African-Americans – defensive lineman Titus Ivory of West Charlotte, and Tommy Love, a running back from Sylva-Webster. “I was lucky to be the first coach with black players on the Shrine Bowl team,” he said. “But they should have been playing years before.”

After losing six of the seven previous games, North Carolina won 34-14 in 1966. Love gained 147 yards, scored two touchdowns and was named co-outstanding back.

Kirkpatrick didn’t learn that Ivory and Love had integrated the Shrine Bowl until he came home in 1966 for Thanksgiving from Purdue University, where he attended on a football scholarship. “I did feel pride,” Kirkpatrick remembers. “I talked with Titus several times and he made it clear that he made the Shrine Bowl because of the things I went through.”

Carrying a secret

After he graduated from Myers Park High School in 1966, all Kirkpatrick wanted to do was leave Charlotte, play football at Purdue and never be the first or the only at anything again.

He finished his senior year as the first black star at Myers Park – setting a single-season school record of 19 touchdowns that still stands.

In addition to the burden he carried on the football field, Kirkpatrick had a secret: His Myers Park teammates didn’t know Kirkpatrick had a baby with a former classmate at Second Ward High in October 1965. He says his mother, aunt and great-grandmother helped the mother raise their son.

Kirkpatrick was being recruited by several major colleges to play football, and he hoped to attend Wake Forest. His SAT score didn’t meet the minimum requirements of the ACC, so he went to Purdue, As a sophomore, he led the Big 10 in kickoff returns. The next season he teamed with Heisman Trophy runner-up Leroy Keyes in the starting backfield and averaged more than 5 yards per carry.

Then in a November game against Michigan State, Kirkpatrick suffered a serious knee injury, tearing his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and cartilage. His college football career was over.

By then, his interests on campus had broadened. He was lead singer in a band, Jimmie K and the Souls. The civil rights movement also drew him in. Sports began to matter less, justice more.

Kirkpatrick began protesting against the Vietnam War. In the civil rights events that surrounded him at Myers Park, he had watched activists risk their lives for a cause. He knew people who died in the war.

In the summer of 1969, he dropped out of school, turning his back on the scholarship. His knee injury would keep him out of the Vietnam War. He joined protesters in California, where he lived in a commune in Berkeley for several months. Still restless, he moved up the coast to Oregon, where he worked on shrimp boats, in lumber mills and as a logger.

He also volunteered to coach Little League baseball. That led to a job in a private school, teaching and coaching. He returned to college at Portland State and earned a bachelor’s in physical education at Oregon State in 1980, and later a master’s degree. He married his wife, Vicki, in the summer of 1982.

That fall, Kirkpatrick’s son, Tony Covington, came to live with him in Oregon for his final two high school years. He had been reared by his mother, Lillian Covington, who had married and moved to California. After Covington divorced, she and Kirkpatrick decided their son needed a male influence.

“When I needed him, the opportunity was there for me... ,” says Tony Covington, 47. “It’s been a blessing in my life that I’ve had him for guidance.”

Kirkpatrick says of his son: “I learned that it’s never too late to take care of your responsibilities.”

Kirkpatrick’s own father never saw him play football. He left the family when Kirkpatrick was 10, moved to New York and started another family. Kirkpatrick would learn years later that professional boxer Mike Tyson was his half-brother. Tyson is familiar with Kirkpatrick’s athleticism. “It’s in the bloodline,” he said.

‘Never backed down’

Kirkpatrick worked for 20 years as an educator in Portland as a teacher, coach and assistant principal. At times, he was the first or only African-American in his position or among a leadership team. Other times, he was picked to help with diversity issues.

As an assistant principal until 2002 at Parkrose High in Portland, he helped manage an influx of gangs – African American, white supremacists, Asian and Latino. “Jimmie brought a perspective that others didn’t,” says former Parkrose principal Peter Nordbye. “Jimmie was always there for you. He never backed down from a difficult situation.”

Kirkpatrick also made decisions that cost him. In 2002, he left Parkrose for an assistant principal job in the Portland city schools. He tested positive for marijuana, left Portland schools and voluntarily received counseling. Struggling with his marriage, he left Portland. He came back to Charlotte where he worked as an assistant principal at Myers Park in 2003. After one year, he missed his wife and their two sons and returned to Portland.

“My road has never been smooth,” he says. “I don’t like to let people down... . I don’t make excuses for what has happened to me. I deal with it.”

Now, he teaches physical education at Portland Community College. He also works in a juvenile detention center, where he’s known as someone especially good at handling serious conflict.

For decades, he’s told his story to kids in Oregon at schools, often in February for Black History Month. He has had his own interpretation of what the 1965 season meant, when football became a civil rights issue. He tells his story as a challenge to youths, but also a personal challenge to himself that there’s still more to do. At 64, hopes he has another chapter in his career.

It’s a story about becoming a pioneer, he’ll say to a group. But there will be pain and there will be obstacles. You’ll be stepping into the unknown.

What if your neighbors call you a sellout? What if your friends put pressure on you to stay?

What will you do?

Schwab: 704-358-5120; Scott: 704-358-5889

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