A letter writer who saw injustice in Shrine Bowl omission

gschwab@charlotteobserver.comMarch 9, 2013 

The two-page letter begins, “I too, am an American Negro.”

It’s dated Nov. 10, 1965, the day after it was announced that Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick did not make the Shrine Bowl.

“I, too, was a little shocked at your not being chosen,” says the letter, signed by James Burch. “... We, as a people, have had a long and arduous struggle to win our place in this great country. As slow as it may appear now for us to receive full acceptance, it is now self evident that we will eventually.”

Kirkpatrick remembers criticism from his classmates and neighbors in Grier Town for leaving all-black Second Ward High School to go to predominantly white Myers Park his senior year. He also remembers a handful of letters of support when he wasn’t chosen for the Shrine Bowl. Some letters, like this one, were from strangers.

“I can remember my mother reading it and reflecting on it,” he says now. “That one just stood out so much.”

So Kirkpatrick saved it, never knowing more about its author than his name.

Burch, now 85 and living in Apex, doesn’t remember writing the letter, but he remembered the talent.

When a reporter called Burch and asked about the Myers Park 1965 football team, he said, “Jimmie Kirkpatrick.”

Burch played football at Fayetteville State and moved to Charlotte to teach in 1957. He became an elementary school principal, Neighborhood Youth Corp. director, and then an administrator in Charlotte schools.

He also refereed basketball for more than 30 years, including games in the ACC, CIAA, Southern Conference and NCAA men’s tournament. He was one of the first African-Americans to referee major college basketball in the South.

He says he watched Kirkpatrick play high school football. “He was quick, strong, had good vision of the field and made great cuts. Jimmie Lee did whatever he wanted to.”

Burch says the Shrine Bowl rejection was an affront to Kirkpatrick and to African-Americans. He says the letter must have come from his pride and empathy.

“I understand the demons that were in his mind and body, thinking that he disappointed his friends,” Burch says. He knows what Kirkpatrick went through opened doors for others.

So at his typewriter in 1965, he composed a letter that, 47 years later, Kirkpatrick preserves in a plastic sleeve. Burch encouraged him to use disappointments as “stepping stones to reach higher heights of success.”

“The Southern way of life is changing,” Burch wrote, “and it is going to take just such fine young men as you to help this change bloom in all of its beauty and greatness.”

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