Fifty-eight years ago today, two young men shook hands at the end of a basketball game, their last as collegiate players. Although the game was played in the Michigan city of East Lansing, it pitted Mississippi State against Bowling Green, both playing their last game in the 1963 NCAA tournament. The handshake took place between each team's best player, Mississippi State forward Leland Mitchell and Bowling Green center Nate Thurmond, a future professional Hall of Famer.
Their easy gesture of good sportsmanship had followed a similar, more publicized handshake before the tipoff of Mississippi State's game the previous night against Loyola of Chicago. In each of these two instances, a white Mississippi State player (all the team's players were white) had shaken the hand of a black opponent. At the time, this meant a great deal.
Although the NCAA men's basketball tournament wasn't yet called "March Madness," it did take place in March. Bowling Green opened its tournament play on March 11 by defeating Notre Dame before losing narrowly to Illinois in the regional final on March 15. The Bowling Green- Mississippi State matchup the next night was a "consolation" game, which no longer is played.
Mississippi State had won the championship of the all-white Southeastern Conference for the third straight year. The two previous years, the constraints of Jim Crow prevented the team from going to the NCAA tournament, which allowed black players to compete. Led by Leland Mitchell -- MSU's top scorer and rebounder -- along with team captain Joe Dan Gold, an independent-minded coaching staff, and a brave college president, the Mississippi State Maroons (as they were then called; they are now the Bulldogs) demanded to play in the 1963 tournament. The student body backed the team. So did most white Mississippians. But it still almost didn't happen.
When James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi in 1962, his act of personal courage prompted racist demagoguery from Democratic Gov. Ross Barnett, trumped up charges against Meredith, white riots, federal troops dispatched to Mississippi by President Kennedy, and the shooting deaths of two protesters. Although Barnett vowed defiantly that his state's schools would never be integrated while he was in office, most Mississippians -- white and black -- came to realize that it was only a matter of time.
But when? And how?
The Board of Trustees for State Institutions for Higher Learning had been packed by the governor and his predecessor with reliable white segregationists. Yet, as they watched the awful events unfold at "Ole Miss," they realized that their state was becoming a national pariah. They didn't want a repeat of what had happened in Oxford 100 miles northwest of their stately campus in Starkville, which still had no black students.
As it happened, the trustees had made a fortuitous decision three years earlier in choosing a new president of the onetime agricultural school. His name was Dean W. Colvard, and he was born not in Mississippi but in North Carolina, just across the Virginia state line. As a young man, he'd labored alongside black farmworkers and had attended Berea College, a Kentucky School founded in 1855 by a Presbyterian abolitionist. Its motto: "God Hath Made of One Blood All Nations of Men."
Colvard himself was hardly a revolutionary, but he had been steeped in a theology older than Jim Crow. The men in charge of athletics at Mississippi State had their own stories. Athletic Director Wade Walker, another North Carolinian, was an All-America football player under the legendary Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma. The Sooners were not yet integrated when he played there, but Walker had noticed how Coach Wilkinson had bucked his state's tradition by integrating his teams in the mid-1950s.
The Maroons' folksy coach, James "Babe" McCarthy, was a native Mississippian, but he'd seen something of the world, having been a transport pilot during the Korean War. He'd never coached above the junior high level before Walker hired him at Mississippi State -- he was an oil salesman -- but McCarthy was an innovative thinker who figured out how to beat Kentucky's famed Adolph Rupp teams. By 1963, he was nursing a grudge against Gov. Barnett, the university trustees, and against racist dogma itself: Besides simple justice, the source of McCarthy's grievance was that he thought his 1959 team could have won the national championship if they had been allowed to compete. Now he had another great team that wanted a chance.
Its team leaders were Leland Mitchell, who thought he had a chance at pro basketball if he could showcase his skills, and Joe Dan Gold, who had competed against black players in high school and wasn't afraid of the challenge posed by playing the best.
The best in college basketball that season was played in the Midwest: Yes, Duke was good, so was NYU, and Colorado. But Cincinnati, Illinois, Bowling Green, and Loyola were all terrific. Cincinnati had won the NCAA crown the two previous years, and was favored to win again. But basketball aficionados had their eye on Loyola, led by Jerry Harkness, a consensus All-American, and Vic Rouse, a rebounding machine. It was the Loyola Ramblers that Mississippi State was destined to play -- if they could get out of Mississippi.
Earlier in the year, school president Colvard had privately polled the trustees about their willingness to abrogate the tradition that didn't allow Mississippi colleges to play against integrated teams. He found little support. Colvard subsequently asked them if they would interfere with his prerogative in making the decision. Here, the sentiment switched. So Colvard backed his coach, athletic directors, and players -- with the student body's support -- and asked only that the trustees not interject. It was smart politics: The vote was a surprise, even to Colvard – 8-3 in his favor. A second vote, expressing confidence in his leadership, was 9-2. Mississippi State was going to the tournament. Or was it? One of the losing trustees, a racist Hattiesburg lawyer who called the issue "the greatest challenge to our way of life since Reconstruction," found some backwater judge to issue an injunction against the university leadership.
Back in Starkville, though, there was no turning back. Learning of the injunction, Mitchell told his fellow players, "We need to head out tonight. Who else has a car?"
Colvard was thinking along the same lines. He left town early, directing Wade Walker and the coach to do likewise. The team's benchwarmers, instead of the starters, were sent to the local airport to make sure no one would stop them. When the smoke cleared, the team and coaches were across the state line in Nashville. From there they flew to East Lansing.
All this drama had attracted press attention and by the time Mississippi State arrived at the regional, the Michigan State band had learned to play the Maroon's fight song. Awaiting them, however, was highly talented and well-coached Loyola. This was a team with four black starters and one known to respond to racist taunts by running up the score on all-white teams.
Loyola didn't run up the score on Mississippi State -- the Maroon were too good for that -- but they did prevail, 61-51, in a game closer than the final score indicated. Loyola was narrowly ahead when Mitchell fouled out, leaving Vic Rouse to have his way on the boards. Harkness, who would go on become a star with the New York Knicks, played his usual sublime game.
There was no trash talk on either side during the tense and closely contested game. The handshake at the beginning between Harkness and Joe Dan Gold may have been de rigueur, but the Loyola players noticed when Mitchell helped Rouse to his feet after both players hit the deck chasing a loose ball.
After the Ramblers went all the way to the title, dethroning Cincinnati, the Loyola-Mississippi State contest came to be called "the Game of Change." It's a fitting appellation, although in truth, change was already coming all over the South and the rest of America. It would happen, as the preacher promised, in "every city and every hamlet, from every city and every state," and was guided by a change of heart in millions of individuals -- sometimes gradually, sometimes instantly -- aided along the way by every interracial handshake, whether cameras were flashing or whether they passed unnoticed in a long-forgotten consolation game.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.