In his Kalamazoo, Michigan study, decorated with a Bucky flag and full-length sofa where he intends to watch his alma mater take on LSU on Saturday, Sidney Williams, Jr. expects memories to come flooding back.
They're memories of the two games in 1957-58 that the two schools intended to but never played. The University of Wisconsin boycotted them because of a 1956 Louisiana state law that prohibited integrated sports contests.
“It was a disappointment,” said Williams, Wisconsin’s starting quarterback and the first African-American quarterback in the Big Ten. “We did the right thing, but it was disappointing because we both had such good teams.”
The Louisiana law had roots in the 1956 Sugar Bowl contest in New Orleans where LSU lost to a University of Pittsburgh team that featured Bobby Grier, an African-American running back. The next legislative session, Louisiana state lawmakers overwhelming passed a measure to “outlaw social events and athletic contests including both Negroes and whites.”
When the bill was signed into law by Louisiana Gov. Earl Long, the younger brother to Huey Long, Wisconsin, the lone northern team on LSU’s upcoming football schedule, had a choice. It turned out to be an easy one for UW Athletic Director Ivan Williamson.
“We have always entered into a contract for athletic contests with another institution on the basis that each school would have complete freedom to select its team members in accordance with the rules and policies of the institution and of the conference of which it is a member,” read the athletic department statement released on July 19, 1956. “We would be compelled to view any action that interfered with this traditional basic policy of freedom of selection as tantamount to forcing a termination of the contract.
“We regret that the reported action by the State of Louisiana will apparently make it impossible for us to play Louisiana State University.”
Besides the starting quarterback, UW had other African-American players like halfback Danny Lewis and end Earl Hill. Williams said his white teammates, many of whom had grown up in rural Wisconsin, like the future historian Stephen Ambrose, didn’t understand segregation.
“They simply didn’t understand what the fuss was about,” Williams said. “They didn’t understand why I couldn’t go into a bathroom at the same time as a white person or go into a restaurant to eat with them.”
Williams understood racial tensions all too well, having graduated from Little Rock’s Dunbar High School two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, ostensibly desegregating the nation’s schools. His uncles were integral in helping nine African-American students attend Little Rock Central High School three years later, an act which required the intervention of federal troops to desegregate that institution.
He wanted to play football in the Big Ten and study engineering. He wrote to Wisconsin’s football staff, detailing his goals. The correspondence led to an academic and athletic scholarship for Williams, who initially played safety for the Badgers until the last two games of the 1956 season.
As Richard Carlton Haney wrote in the autumn 2008 issue of the Wisconsin Magazine of History, “Having tried five others at quarterback without success, Coach Milt Bruhn turned in desperation to Sid Williams to start the final two games.”
On Nov. 17, 1956, he would score the game-tying touchdown against Illinois and make history as the conference’s first African-American signal caller. It was an opportunity Williams said he would not have received at a college in his home state of Arkansas or elsewhere in the south.
“My teammates were unbelievably supportive. They had no problem with me as quarterback,” he said. “And outside of the normal back and forth, I never had any racial remarks from our opponents either.”
Ambrose backed that up, writing in his book, “In America—Personal Reflections of an Historian,” “Sid and I were friends, and as he was easily the best athlete on the team, all the players were glad to have him as our quarterback. We were concerned with winning.”
Williams would start in each of the following two seasons, the second of which led to a 7-1-1 record and a ranking as the No. 6 team in the country at the end of the 1958 season. That season LSU was undefeated and won the national championship.
“We had to cancel that game because we couldn’t go down there without the full team,” Williams said. “But I think we could have beaten them.”
Instead of playing LSU, Wisconsin scheduled and beat West Virginia at Camp Randall Stadium in 1957 and then traveled to Florida to play the University of Miami in 1958. Even though that state enforced segregation laws, the Wisconsin team stayed and ate together at a Miami Beach hotel as the downtown hotels wouldn’t accept African-Americans as guests. The Badgers would win that game as well.
By then, the UW Faculty Athletic Board had passed a resolution, stating “Whenever a Wisconsin team plays another institution in any athletic event, the members of the team are to be permitted to travel together, lodge and dine together and play together as a team without discrimination.”
Like so many other Wisconsin alums, Williams wonders when the Badgers take the field against LSU on Saturday, who will take the snaps. But maybe more important to the retired patent lawyer will be the quarterbacks expected to play for the Tigers. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris are African-American, and the irony is not lost on Williams.
“Both of those outstanding young men back in my time couldn’t have played for LSU, let alone been associated with the team at all,” said Williams. “I’ll certainly be watching (Saturday night), looking back. I know our running game will be fine and if we can get our passing attack going, we can get the victory over them we never got the chance to earn.”