Black History Month is here, again.
And again, I am mystified how Eddie Robinson can be excluded from those public service announcements on TV and the tribute ads in newspapers that recognize the contributions of African American men and women who helped change this nation’s culture.
Who can quarrel with the likes of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Dubois, Jackie Robinson, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Condoleezza Rice or Muhammad Ali, to mention some who are featured this month? I can’t.
But Eddie Robinson, who molded football players and young citizens for 57 years at what is now Grambling State University, belongs on that list, too.
Briefly, Robinson’s coaching distinctions include more than 200 players who made it to pro football, including four members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and 408 victories – the most ever until surpassed by the late Joe Paterno, of Penn State fame and infamy, and John Gagliardi of Division III St. John’s University in Minnesota.
More significant, though, are Robinson’s contributions as a leader and role model in the South before, during and after the civil rights movement, and his unflinching patriotism.
“Coach, you’re the most Americanized man I know,” said Doug Williams, the only black quarterback to win the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Award, when he played for Robinson at Grambling.
“He always preached America,” Williams explained. “He waved that American flag more than anybody else. You knew a guy his age had to have gone through some rough times early on in life. Yet he waved that flag. One of the things he used to tell us was, ‘If it can be done, America is the only place to get it done.'”
At a time when lunch counter sit-ins were met with insults and abuse, peaceful protest marches provoked fire hoses and snarling police dogs, and the Freedom Rides were met with violence, Eddie Robinson urged Grambling athletes and students to go to class, get an education, and be ready for change.
“The thing he always wanted to stress,” says Hall of Fame receiver Charlie Joiner, “was to be a good citizen and a good American.”
Another Hall of Famer, Green Bay’s great Willie Davis, recalls Robinson telling him and his teammates to focus on being ready when change came, as he was sure it would. “He would say things like, ‘The most important thing for you is to stay focused on getting an education, and not get caught up in these things.'”
Jean Roe Freeling, a student at the height of the civil unrest, recalls being counseled by Robinson as she considered joining a demonstration in Shreveport.
“He had an understanding that very few people had. Even with the hideous things that were happening in civil rights, he said the main thing we needed to concentrate on was getting our education. He stressed that daily: ‘Times are going to change,’ he’d tell us. ‘Get your education.'”
U.S. Congressman John Lewis, who suffered inhumane treatment in Mississippi jails and numerous beatings as a leader of the civil rights struggle, has said of Eddie Robinson:
“He must be looked upon as one individual who made a major contribution to the cause of racial equality in America. He had a real impact on the lives and directions of the young men he coached, but not only on the people he coached. His impact was on students and others at Grambling, too.”
So why is Eddie Robinson overlooked during Black History Month?
Perhaps it’s because for much of his career the accomplishments of black athletes and black colleges were ignored in the white press. For years, Robinson had to call newspapers with his own game reports, hoping to get a paragraph in sports sections controlled entirely by white editors.
Perhaps it’s because the end of segregated college football in the South was a two-edged sword. As Alabama, Ole Miss, Louisiana State and countless other programs opened their doors to those elite black athletes Robinson once attracted, and newspapers began to cover their exploits, Grambling’s talent pool diminished, and with it Robinson’s overwhelming success.
Or perhaps it’s because Eddie Robinson’s restraint didn’t make headlines in the day. “Be ready when change comes” is wise and courageous, but not dramatic. His impact was not loudly obvious.
Whatever the case, it’s a shame that his place as “the Martin Luther King of football,” as Jackson State’s retired Hall of Fame coach W.C. Gorden called Robinson when he died, isn’t recognized during Black History Month.
Former Louisiana State Rep. Raymond Jetson, who played for Robinson, said it best at a memorial service for Robinson in 2007:
“In the aftermath of his death, a lot of attention will be devoted to all the players he sent to the NFL. That’s not his legacy. It’s the thousands of young men who went to Grambling with no hope of having a life in the NFL. His legacy is the thousands of men who are good fathers and good husbands, good businessmen, good employees and community leaders.”
At a time in America when the nation needs positive role models and positive examples, especially for its young people, Eddie Robinson provides just that. Too bad that’s not recognized during Black History Month.