When he walked through the door, the front door mind you, of the Kellogg Center that day in 1963 and was told he would have lunch, the thought was as alien to Gene Washington as the next hour’s experience.
He could sit at a table at a public eatery? A white waitress would ask him for his order? There would be no obstruction, no caustic words, no sneers, no expulsion?
A teenager from Texas had no concept of such a moment or day. But here was a new reality, at Michigan State University, where a young man who lived 15 minutes outside of Houston came to realize not all of America was as racially poisoned as the South.
“You have to look at it from a personal standpoint,” Washington was saying this week during a phone chat. “Everything was very new. We had, in Texas, no relationship with white people. All of a sudden you leave an all-black situation for a completely white scene, and yet everybody was very embracing — as if what we were experiencing down south wasn’t that way at Michigan State.”
Washington, an All-American receiver for the Spartans who was part of MSU’s national championship teams in 1965 and 1966, is now in College Football’s Hall of Fame, as are three other members of those sacred Spartans teams coached, and recruited, by Duffy Daugherty: Bubba Smith, George Webster and Clint Jones.
All arrived at East Lansing when colleges in the south, even in the 1960s, barred African-American players from suiting up for football. If the university hierarchy could get away with it, there was little hope of even enrolling in college, as those with memories of Alabama governor George Wallace, or Mississippi’s Ross Barnett, and their segregated stances recall all too chillingly.
Michigan State’s dividend from admitting black players was, morally speaking, incalculable, while athletically quantifiable: back-to-back championships, and only one loss during those 1965-66 seasons: 14-12, to UCLA, in the Jan. 1, 1966, Rose Bowl.
The tale of how a racially-integrated MSU brought opportunity to athletes, and championships to East Lansing, has been turned into a beautifully woven documentary, “Through The Banks of The Red Cedar,” which as part of its premiere has showings Saturday (1:30 p.m.) at the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Detroit Film Theatre, and Sunday (1 p.m.) at Emagine Theater in Royal Oak, all as part of the Freep Film Festival.
The film is written and produced by Maya Washington, Gene’s youngest daughter, herself an accomplished actor, playwright, poet and arts educator who has released two earlier films. She holds a degree in theater from Southern Cal, a master in fine arts from Hamline University, and an experience in East Lansing in 2011 that spurred her to bring the story of MSU football and integration to a documentary audience.
“It was about then that I first started hearing about Duffy Daugherty’s (recruiting) pipeline,” Maya Washington said this week during an interview from Los Angeles, where she was on assignment, away from her hometown of Minneapolis. . “And then Bubba passed away that year, the same year my dad was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and I was around my dad and his teammates a lot during that particular chapter in time.
“I’d hear and read about some of the stories. And I was fascinated, all because it was such an important part of my own history, and the opportunities I have today.”
Maya Washington decided this tale of prejudice and progress, of two Americas then functioning side by side, would become a documentary movie. With the help of grants, her own funds, and those of supporters, “Through The Banks of the Red Cedar” is now showing.
“I clearly underestimated how long it would take,” she said. “And how much money would be required.”
It has already been presented to audiences at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the College of St. Scholastica, in Duluth, but Washington says she considers the Detroit-Royal Oak screenings to be the film’s true premiere — and perhaps another experience in the surprise those Minnesota audiences displayed as the story unfurled.
“They did not know schools in the South then were closed to African-Americans and African-American athletes,” Washington said. “Somehow that detail, which provided so much historical context, had been missed.”
Her dad, of course, can attest. He lived the searing experience of a segregated America and a more tolerant, even hospitable, culture at a land-grant college in Michigan.
Washington’s pass-catching skills meshed with those of so many stars at MSU who hailed from states beneath the Mason-Dixon line and who otherwise had no recourse but to play at all-black schools. Instead, they found in East Lansing a campus that embodied a 1960s appetite for social justice, as well as a coach, Daugherty, who was not a taskmaster but rather a man whose personality and football acumen in ’65 and ’66 would meld and shape one of college football’s all-time grandest powers.
Washington, like Webster, Smith, and Jones, became a first-round draft pick in 1967. Four of the first eight NFL picks in that ’67 draft were Spartans. Each of them, almost certainly, would have played somewhere closer to home, somewhere in the South, had white supremacy not then been the policy in Jim Crow America.
Washington’s voice was soft, almost pastoral, as he spoke this week from Minneapolis, where he has lived since the Vikings drafted him 51 years ago. He returned to the memory of that day at Kellogg Center. It was as if a curtain had parted and a different America existed.
“It was so easy to make that adjustment then,” he said, explaining how freedom can overcome unease. “No one would question me about going in the front door of a restaurant. That lunch was my first restaurant situation.”
Telling words, his reference to a “first restaurant situation.” It wasn’t because of poverty Washington hadn’t had a “restaurant situation,” in La Porte, Texas. He had parents who worked. Rather, the idea of a public restaurant — open to all races — was a ridiculous fantasy in the years before the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964.
The men who can most concisely be credited for making MSU a refuge from the South’s racial evil were, in order, MSU president John Hannah, who would go on to become first chairman of the United States Civil Rights Commission, as well as Daugherty, as much a true egalitarian as football coach.
“The one thing I’ll always remember, especially coming from a segregated situation,” Gene Washington said, “is Duffy telling the whole team: ‘Call me Duffy. Don’t call me coach. I’m Duffy.’
“Well, coming from where I did and where it better be ‘mister’ and ‘sir’ and all that stuff, here’s a white guy saying he wants you to call him Duffy. But he did this with all of us as teammates. And in all the time I was there, we were a family. No fights. No differences.”
Maya Washington says it was this humanity, these connecting threads from re-tracing her father’s path from La Porte to East Lansing, and seeing its legacy a half-century later in MSU coach Mark Dantonio’s teams, that became for her a mandate to make the documentary.
She has headed two earlier films: “White Space,” about a deaf poet performing for the first time in front of a hearing audience, and “Clear,” a fictional piece based on personal experience with people wrongfully convicted of crimes who later were reunited with families.
“I guess, in general, my body of work reflects a deep interest in social justice,” she said. “We have to value history. Things that are happening, and that have happened — a whole generation must be educated about the truth or we’ll have problems. Some of the current political and social resistance doesn’t make sense without context.”
There are future screenings planned, many at a host of film festivals: in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Minneapolis; Bentonville, Arkansas; Martha’s Vineyard, etc.
“We hope to continue going to film festivals all over the country,” Washington said. “The first week of May, alone, we have four festivals scheduled.
“We’ll see how the film is received and investigate ways of making a film like this available to colleges and universities. What is the impact on audiences and students?
“We’re using my dad’s experience as a platform and as a context. It’s all part of an inter-generational conversation about sports, and about America.”
History on film
What: “Through the Banks of the Red Cedar” is a documentary film (70 minutes) directed by Maya Washington on how Michigan State’s recruitment of African-American football players from a segregated South forged championship football teams during the mid-1960s in East Lansing. The documentary is being shown as part of the Freep Film Festival.
When and where: 1:30 p.m., Saturday, at the Detroit Film Theatre, located at the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, in Detroit. Also: 1 p.m. Sunday, at Emagine Theater, 200 N. Main St., Royal Oak.
Price: Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door.