Super Bowl South

Peyton Manning, son of New Orleans, finally shook the monkey off his back and led the Indianapolis Colts to victory in the unofficial U.S. holiday known as the Super Bowl. The game had some compelling story lines - Manning's final triumph, the historic meeting of two African American coaches - but the event itself seemed to lack excitement, down to Prince's flat half-time show and the stream of forgettable 2.6-million-a-pop ads.

Given the obstacles black coaches have faced in major sports, the meeting of Tony Dungy - who developed his game while coaching with the Tampa Bay Bucanneers - and Lovie Smith, a native of Gladewater, TX who learned the ropes under Dungy at Tampa, was a major event. But as Dave Zirin noted in the LA Times, professional sports still has a long way to go:

About 70% of the players in the NFL are black, but out of the league's 32 teams, only six African Americans are head coaches. The situation is worse in the executive box — three black general managers. As poor a record as this is, black representation in the ranks of college football coaches makes the NFL coaching fraternity look like the Harlem Globetrotters. Only six of 117 NCAA head football coaches are African American, according to the Black Coaches Assn.

Or as Bomani Jones wrote for ESPN: "There is nothing worth celebrating about a league that has to force its franchises to interview nonwhite coaching candidates and finally has a black coach in the 41st edition of its biggest game. That's not a good thing. That's a damn shame." There's an interesting back story to Peyton Manning and his father, football player Archie Manning. In 2000, Archie and Peyton co-authored Manning: A Father, His Sons and a Football Legacy, which starts with Archie's upbringing in Drew, Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s, where fierce battles were brewing over school segregation.

Southern Exposure writer Michael Hudson reviewed the book for the Washington Monthly, and noticed that Manning's take on desegregation is a lot different than how African Americans in Mississippi remember it: Archie Manning starts by saying he's "Old South" and proud of it, but he's no bigot. He recalls black friends he made over the years. He says blacks "were the ones hurt the most by segregation" and integration was "right and inevitable."

But his memory seems dimmer when it comes to how hard blacks had to fight to end Jim Crow and how much they suffered for their efforts. When he looks back in anger, it's not at the hurts inflicted upon blacks, but at the wrongs inflicted upon him as a white Southerner. Hudson notes that Archie Manning's version of life in segregated Mississippi reflects a growing trend in how many white Southerners tell the tale: that gaining civil rights was a smooth and painless process, aside from a handful of "outside agitators."

For example, here's one statement Archie makes in the book: "The one incident I remember as a forerunner involved a group of white college kids who came to town one summer to organize Drew's blacks into exercising their voting rights. Drew didn't look too favorably on being invaded, likening it to carpetbagging, and the college kids were longhairs we called "beatniks" in those days, but as controversies go it really wasn't much. No fights, no arrests."

Hudson compares this memory to that of civil rights workers, who faced many violent confrontations with belligerent whites, and the story of Ruth Carter Whittle, an African-American student in Manning's class whose house was shot up with bullets for attending a white school (the Carter family's story is told in Connie Curry's excellent book, Silver Rights). When Ruth's sister Gloria, a member of the school band, was asked to play for a newly-declared "Archie Manning Day," she declined -- and was kicked out of the band. The point, Hudson says, isn't that Manning was a racist. It's more a statement on how we remember the past, depending on where we stand. The history of Southern civil rights, a bloody and bitter battle, runs the risk of being sanitized, causing people to forget just how difficult -- then, now and in the future -- it can be to struggle for justice.

Here's how Hudson puts it:

[I'm not] arguing that Manning is racist. I take Manning at his word that he is dedicated to racial equality. But it makes it all the more disquieting that someone who believes as he does would remember integration in his hometown (and in college sports in the Deep South) as a relatively smooth, almost painless process--no problems, no incidents, no big deal. [...] From the distance of time, segregation seems so undeniably stupid and evil, it's hard to grasp its reality. It's easier to soften the memories, to recall the heroes in warm sepia tones, and to forget the ugly confrontations and decades of struggle it took to end American apartheid. [...]

Putting our dark racial past behind isn't something that can be done overnight. But white Americans have to realize that the first step to healing is acknowledging that segregation wasn't just a theoretical wrong, that real people suffered real pain--and that many of the wounds have yet to heal.