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Steve C.
Democrat TN 9

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  • Recognizing Professor Perry Wallace for Overcoming Adversity in Sports During the Civil Rights Era

    by Representative Steve Cohen

    Posted on 2015-01-21

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    COHEN of tennessee in the house of representatives Wednesday, January 21, 2015 Mr. COHEN. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize Professor Perry Wallace, a Vanderbilt University graduate who integrated basketball for the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and current professor at American University, for overcoming the racism and violence he experienced as an African-American collegiate athlete during the Civil Rights era. While Wallace never viewed himself as a pioneer or a change agent for civil rights, he nonetheless helped break the color-barrier in the SEC as the first African-American basketball player in the Conference.

    Like many African-American college athletes at the time, Wallace faced tremendous challenges, both physical and emotional, that highlighted the ugly reality of race relations in America. One significant memory Wallace has when his health and life were threatened was during a 1968 game between Vanderbilt and the University of Mississippi that was played in Oxford. During this game, Wallace--who was the only African-American player on the team--was subjected to racial epithets, taunting, threats of lynching, and physical violence when he received a swollen eye due to a thrown elbow just before halftime. Perry eventually returned to the game after tending to his injury, but he was mindful of the fact that after halftime, no members of his team stayed behind to accompany him back to the court. He went on to help his team win 90-72.

    Unfortunately, the incident at Oxford was not the only time when he had to endure racism at an away game. Wallace and his teammates have recounted a noose being dangled near the Vanderbilt bench at a game in Knoxville and items being thrown at him, including Cokes, coins, ice and even a dagger. Perhaps adding insult to injury, many of the venues were very small and the sounds of racism could be easily picked up and broadcast over the radio for all to hear, including his mother who listened to the game against Ole Miss from her hospital bed. Despite the intolerance he experienced, Wallace remained steadfast in his resolve to not succumb to those who wished to see him fail. He was fortunate, in this manner, to have such mental strength to survive. Others, including Henry Harris, who also played in the SEC, and Nat Northington, one of the first two African-Americans to play football at the University of Kentucky, found the pressures all too great.

    In a stand against the injustices of the Jim Crow laws that made segregation legal and gave protection for acts of violence and death toward African-Americans, in his last game played in Nashville against Mississippi State, Wallace ended his college basketball career with a slam dunk--a play that was deemed illegal at the time. The illegal play was allowed to stand and he finished the game scoring 28 points and 27 rebounds. He dedicated the game to his mother who passed away a year earlier.

    Perry Wallace graduated from Vanderbilt and was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1970. He earned his Juris Doctorate from Columbia University in 1975 and moved to Washington, DC where he worked in the Executive Office of then-mayor Walter E. Washington before becoming an adjunct professor of law at George Washington University. Professor Wallace then served as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice and later rejoined academia as an associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

    Today, Perry Wallace is a professor at American University Washington College of Law where he specializes in environmental, corporate and international economic law, business and environmental studies, and is the Director of the JD/MBA Joint Degree Program. Perry has received numerous awards for his accomplishments in academia and his list of publications and writings is extensive. In 2003, he was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and in 2004, his Vanderbilt jersey, number 25, was retired. In 2014, Andrew Maraniss, a Vanderbilt alum and former associate director of media relations at the school's athletic department, published Wallace's biography entitled ``Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South.'' Vanderbilt University has a program called VUcept where freshmen students are paired with upperclassmen to make their transition to the school easier. As a freshman there, I was fortunate to have Wallace as my VUceptor. I ask all of my colleagues to join me in recognizing Perry Wallace for his tenacity in the face of adversity and for his many professional accomplishments and contributions to academia.


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