When some legislators tried to cancel the 1957 Michigan-Georgia football game over a racial issue

The University of Michigan has quite a complicated history when it comes to playing football games against teams from Georgia.

Throughout its history, Michigan has only played three games against teams from Georgia – and two of them involved major racial controversies.

Michigan has played Georgia twice and Georgia Tech once, and the last game took place in 1965, so the Wolverines haven’t played a team from that state in 54 years. Perhaps that’s because the games usually are tied to controversy.

The most famous racial incident, of course, took place in 1934, when Georgia Tech came to Ann Arbor for a game. (This story was told in the documentary I did with my directing partner Brian Kruger, “Black and Blue.”) The Jim Crow custom in the South back then was that Southern teams refused to play against any team that had an African-American player.

This was a problem for Georgia Tech in 1934, because Michigan’s best player was an African American from Detroit named Willis Ward. Tech said it would refuse to play the game unless Ward were benched.

When Michigan Athletic Director Fielding Yost (himself the son of a Confederate soldier) agreed to the racist demand, it infuriated Willis’ teammates, including his best friend on the team, a future president by the name of Gerald Ford.

Michigan went on to win the game, 9-2 – its only win of what became a miserable season. The Georgia Tech incident ripped the soul out of Michigan’s team, but it also had a profound positive impact on Gerald Ford as he moved on to Congress and eventually the White House.

Thanks to “Black and Blue,” the Willis Ward incident has become well-known to Michigan fans. But few people remember what happened in 1957, when Georgia came to Ann Arbor for a game.

It was 23 years after the Willis Ward incident, but that contest was also marred by a racial controversy that came to the surface several months before the game, as a group of Michigan legislators lobbied furiously to have the game canceled.

It’s a story that everyone should know, and it’s especially timely during Black History Month, as we study the hurdles that African Americans have been forced to overcome throughout our history.

The Michigan-Georgia game took place on Oct. 5, 1957, in Ann Arbor, but the story starts back in January of that year.

On Jan. 22, 1957, a Georgia state senator by the name of Leon Butts Jr., a despicable racist, introduced a piece of legislation that would ban race mixing in all athletic contests and social functions.

Sen. Butts introduced the bill because he wanted to halt the use of African American players in the Class A South Atlantic Baseball League. One of the teams in that league played in his district, and he didn’t want to have to watch black and white players on the same field.

But then he decided, what the heck, we need to ban ALL interaction between black and white people, so he extended the bill to include all social functions, dances, concerts, athletic training and games. The bill also required separate seating at all events for white and black people.

And you would face a huge fine and be thrown in jail if you broke this law. According to a newspaper account at the time, “Butts’ bill provides that violation of the segregation provisions would be a misdemeanor with a fine of $100 to $1,000 and imprisonment of 60 days to a year.”

Folks, this wasn’t happening in the 1800s. This wasn’t happening in the 1930s. This was happening in 1957. This was just three years before I was born. This makes my skin crawl.

Anyway, the Georgia State Senate thought this was a fantastic idea, so on Feb. 14, 1957, the entire Senate voted unanimously to adopt Sen. Leon Butts’ bill. A few days later, a House panel also unanimously agreed. The bill was heading to the desk of Gov. Marvin Griffin, an enormous racist himself who also thought this was a splendid idea. It seemed quite likely that this was going to become the law in Georgia.

And this is the part of the story where the Michigan Legislature comes in.

The folks in Lansing were watching very carefully the sickening situation that was playing out at the Georgia State Capitol, and they wanted to do something to take a stand.

The cause was taken up by State Sen. Basil W. Brown, State Sen. John B. Swainson and State Rep. George Edwards. Those names might sound familiar. Swainson was elected governor a few years later, while Brown and Edwards were both longtime legislators. Edwards himself was a native of Georgia and a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

John Swainson, a Michigan state senator who later became governor.

In any case, Brown, Swainson and Edwards were alerted to the fact that in October of that year, Michigan was scheduled to play Georgia in football. They thought it would be highly inappropriate for a team from Michigan to be playing a team from Georgia at this time.

So they wrote a letter to the University of Michigan Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics, the powerful body that oversaw the football program. They were demanding the Michigan-Georgia game be canceled, pointing out that U-M had at least two African American players who were expected to be on the team that fall, halfback Jim Pace and tackle Willie Smith.

As the board prepared to meet in February of 1957, the three legislators drove to Ann Arbor to lobby the board members personally. They met with them for about 40 minutes, furiously making their case that the game needed to be canceled. Brown said that playing the game would be “an affront to the integrity of our Negro students and athletes.”

Joining their effort was Congressman Charles E. Diggs Jr. of Detroit, who also demanded that the board cancel the game.

An interesting sidelight here is that a year earlier, in 1956, Diggs had run for re-election against none other than Willis Ward. Diggs was a Democrat and Ward was a Republican, and it was the first time in Michigan history that two black candidates had run against each other for a Congressional seat.

Diggs won the election, but he knew Willis Ward and his story very well, and it came up a lot in 1957 as he made the case that the Michigan-Georgia game needed to be canceled.

Well, the Board in Control of Intercollegiate Athletics – and in particular, legendary Michigan athletic director and coach Fritz Crisler – were not swayed. They all voted that the game would go on as scheduled.

The board issued an official statement which read as follows: “It is our conviction (that) cancellation of the game with Georgia would not contribute to the solution of these problems. We believe it would be legally, morally and socially unjustifiable to cancel the game. Therefore, we’ve concluded not to do so.”

Crisler had given up coaching the team in 1947, but he was still the athletic director in 1957. And he was adamant that Michigan should play the game. He also pointed out that unlike in the Georgia Tech game in 1934, he wouldn’t let the visitors from Georgia dictate who could and couldn’t play in this contest.

Fritz Crisler

Crisler said, “I talked at length with coach Wally Butts of Georgia at the time (the game was scheduled), and asked him if there was any objection about playing against Negro athletes. He assured me there wasn’t. We will not play anyone who tries to tell us the make-up of our team, and we will never attempt to dictate the make-up of any rival team.”

So the game went on as scheduled on Oct. 5, 1957, and Michigan ended up winning easily, 26-0. It ended up being a highly mediocre season for U-M and coach Bennie Oosterbaan, as they finished 5-3-1 overall and in sixth place in the Big Ten.

Georgia returned to Ann Arbor in 1965, and this time, the Bulldogs won the game, 15-7. Georgia was still an all-white team; the first African American didn’t suit up for the Bulldogs until 1971.

That was the last time Michigan ever played a team from Georgia. They aren’t scheduled to play each other this year, either, but Michigan and Georgia will both likely be ranked in the top 10 when the season starts, so there’s always the possibility of a College Football Playoff match-up. That would be nice.

As for Leon Butts, the Senator who championed the racist legislation, he held on until 2016, when he passed away at the age of 87.

I found this to be remarkable and troubling: Upon his passing, the Georgia House of Representatives honored him with a resolution praising him as one of the the state’s “most distinguished citizens.” The resolution also praised him for giving “inspiration to many through his high ideals, morals and deep concern for his fellow citizens.”

He most certainly did not do that. Perhaps nobody in Georgia remembered this episode by the time he died, but he was definitely not deserving of any praise for his public conduct in life. This was a man, after all, who had said, “If they (professional baseball teams) can’t get away without Negroes, let’s do away with baseball.”

You don’t honor someone like that with tributes. Not ever.

For highlights of Michigan’s 1957 season, see the video below.

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